1First, tell us about the impact COVID-19 has had on your practice.
We've had to make a lot of changes and burn on a dime to accommodate patients without actually having them in the office. We also had to find some new ways to attract patients, both in our marketing strategies and in how the providers interact with patients who have been on the fence about purchasing or wearing hearing aids. And, of course, the market has taken hits as far as savings plans, retirement, pensions, and all of that. It's a lot to try to cope with, but we're doing our best to adapt to each challenge as they arise.
2What are the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make in response to the pandemic?
We had to create a Patient Care Specialist position for one of our employees who couldn’t be in contact with patients per the direction of her primary care physician. She’s been making outbound phone calls to folks who are either receiving our direct mail, haven’t come back for part two of their hearing aid evaluations, haven’t had an insurance check, were tested but not sold (TNS), or whose devices are out of warranty (OOW). I don’t know if it was our biggest, but it was definitely the most involved change. The rest was more of a mindset change that we had to make – we had to find patients that we hadn’t spoken with. I think we became dependent on some of our marketing sources and had to change our thought process and get back to actually reaching out to patients to see how they’re doing and how we can help them.
3You also had to close your offices temporarily. When did you know it was the right time to reopen and start marketing again?
We knew early on we were going to have to shut down temporarily. We didn’t wait for the mandates to come from the municipalities—the writing was on the wall. When we felt comfortable enough to reopen, the only thing that held us back was the acquisition of protective equipment. We ordered PPE back in March and some of it didn't show up until May. Once we had it, we already had a plan in place for our marketing efforts and what sort of communications we would send out to bring patients in.
4Many practices ask us about when and how to resume marketing efforts. Tell us more about your strategy and what your messaging has been to your patients?
We've had to change our direct mail strategy. While we used to spend $273 per new patient, we've actually lowered that number by sending out a couple of different mailers that highlight the safety measures we’ve taken to protect both patients and staff. We’ve plastered it on anything and everything that has our name on it. We created our own direct mail piece that has an insert that addresses some of the specific actions that we take when patients are scheduling an appointment. We also talk them through those safety measures on the phone before their appointment. It's very clearly communicated what the expectation is to make sure folks feel safe enough to come into the office. We’re following best practices when it comes to CDC guidelines and we communicate it in everything that we do—our voicemails, on our website, in our direct mail, when we receive inbound calls or make outbound calls, when we send patients batteries or supplies.
5How has your message been received by patients?
It's been kind of a mixed bag. Usually, it's positive. People are grateful that we're taking the precautions that we are to protect everyone. Most patients we speak with who come into the practice are very comfortable and haven’t given us any pushback. Early on, we did have people who were disappointed that we decided to shut down. That’s subsided as the fatality rate has increased and the numbers of new cases have spiked in certain areas. I think those people probably understand now that we did the right thing.
6How have you generated and segmented lists for your database outreach? Please walk us through the process.
We run a monthly report called the Lost Opportunity Report and in that report is every patient who was a candidate for hearing aids but wasn’t sold. We compile it monthly so that we don't miss anyone at the end of the month who might languish on a list for six months to a year because a box wasn’t checked in our software. So, we went back through those lists and made sure we were in touch with the most recent patients. First, Tested Not Sold patients. Then we moved onto Out of Warranty patients—anyone wearing devices four years or older. Finally, we started dialing up the people who received our direct mail. We run three offices, so out of the list of 2,500 people we sent mailers to, each office had 400-500 names to dial—that’s 1,200 in any given week. So, there’s been a mountain of work to do.
We also had patients who we knew had health insurance benefits that they hadn’t used and community outreach lists of people in facilities that we haven’t seen in quite a while because of the COVID shutdowns that we could service through mail or telehealth. The lists are endless. You can segment your database into any type of list you can imagine. But you must craft the right message for the right segment—it’s not one size fits all. The message must address the specific challenges of each group, each list.
7What changes do you plan to make to help recover some of the revenue you’ve lost and hit your goals for 2020-2021?
We’re making a big transition right now into the digital space and that means a new website, pay-per-click (Google Ads), and digital lead generation that we've tried in the past, but with little success. It's been a long time coming but finally, with the help of AudiologyDesign, we’re going to try to generate 42 opportunities per month, per office. That would equal 126 total opportunities per month from my digital spend at a cost of $75 per new patient. When you combine this digital plan with my direct mail spend, it will significantly lower my cost per new patient from $274 to $70/$75 and help to augment the direct mail that went out yesterday.
I'm hoping that by the third and fourth quarters, we'll see significant results. That will allow us to schedule an extra 10-15 patients a month, then net an extra 10-15 units a month. And then over the next six months, we'll be able to eat the elephant. We’re adding in about an extra 50 percent capacity for patients in any given month and spreading it out over the next six months so that we can reach our device goal for the year.
8Have you learned anything the last few months that you think will have a positive impact on the business moving forward?
The biggest thing we learned as we returned to work was that the Audiologists were having a tough time getting patients to explain and overcome their objections to wearing devices because their objections were different than pre-COVID-19. We've taken a few steps back and started to embrace more of a growth mindset. In fact, we just started a Friday Happy Hour Book Club where we've been reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. She's the originator of the research and the growth mindset. We’ve realized that we weren't as open as we thought to learning and adapting to new things. I have a lot of hope that, as we better understand the new objections patients have, we’ll learn how to address them in a way that we hadn't considered prior to COVID-19. It's really a growth opportunity that I don't think we would have experienced if we weren't forced into it.
9Talk a little more about the changes you’ve seen in the post-COVID-19 patient.
The psychological effects of hearing loss are still present, although they seem to be a magnified in some respects by the masks and the lack of physical connection with family members. Zoom conferences and teleconferences are more important which means the hearing component has been amplified. The biggest thing we've seen change in the patient/consumer mindset is the value of high-quality hearing health care. There’s so much financial pressure on people right now and hearing aids are a big expense.
10What Consult YHN services or resources have you used to help manage the business through the COVID-19 crisis?
We attended the [COVID-19] webinars and some of the Consult Teletrainings, especially the ones for front office staff and patient care coordinators. I use Navigator on a regular basis to check our pricing and make sure that our bills are paid. Also, we can't live without Consult Recruiting. They've helped to find us candidates both for Audiology and Front Office. That’s something I don’t know how we would do in the COVID environment. But Consult’s in-house recruiters are accustomed to interviewing candidates in different states over the phone. It’s par for the course for them. Consult YHN has tons of resources. The more people you can get involved from Consult and eyeballs you can get on your problem, the more potential solutions you'll receive. So, don't underutilize them -- overutilize them until they tell you to stop calling.
11Do you have any advice for practice owners who are struggling right now?
I do. It's about fear. When you’re scared of something and you don't know what to do, you tend to do nothing. But the more you learn about patients in the COVID-19 environment and understand your business and the market, the more that fear melts away. That’s when you can start making good decisions that are in everyone's best interest. The first two-three weeks of the pandemic, we got caught up in the fear. Once we worked through it, we were able to make some significant changes. So, don't let fear paralyze you—embrace it, and get past it. That's what courage is.