One of the biggest challenges community health workers, community health representatives, and other lay health advocates continue to face during the pandemic is connecting with their clients and patients. Traditional outreach and engagement efforts make it much easier to offer preventive care, see first-hand what kind of support and services they might need and develop a lasting relationship.
Online outreach is an area that was evolving before the COVID-19 pandemic, although it sped up. Online tools can help your team stay engaged with clients. Work-from-home environments are better than they were in early 2020, and most conferences have moved online to make it easier to learn and develop programs.
“Virtual health, or the use of technologies such as apps, wearable and environmental sensors, video and chat platforms, is becoming integral to the health system,” an American Hospital Association report from 2019 revealed. Even then, more than half of consumers and physicians used smartphones as a way to touch base.
So how can your team keep doing outreach remotely? Much like during in-person outreach, CHWs need a set of soft skills for successfully building rapport with patients. These are the methods your CHW team needs to conduct virtual outreach and successfully build rapport with the populations they serve.
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The top 4 Ways every Virtual outreach program needs to build successful client relationships
1. Communicate in Multiple Ways
Doing outreach by knocking on a door or setting up a community health fair isn’t as easy as it was. If your community health program needs to reach more patients, increase the ways they’re putting out messages. It’s also a good reason for you to cross-train your team as CHWs so many people can repeat similar messages.
For example, your team could send one message, such as COVID vaccination clinics or reminders for screenings:
- Regular phone calls
- Quick text messages
- Email messages
- Printed materials
- Video calls
- 24-hour call line
2. Generate a positive Attitude
CHWs usually work with clients facing some of the most challenging moments of their lives. A scary diagnosis, unsafe living conditions, and frustration in the face of these difficulties can often predispose patients.
Add to that the insecurities or self-doubt from transitioning to an environment they’re unfamiliar with and you’ll likely meet some resistance.
The first step in a successful virtual outreach program is framing it as an exciting opportunity to overcome the problems your patients are living. Without this optimistic approach, they could feel forced, scared, or isolated. Especially if they have a hard time accessing reliable internet or services and aren’t used to technology in their daily lives.
3. Make technology accessible to Community Members
An estimated 19 million Americans don’t have access to fixed broadband services, according to this Federal Communications Commission report. And more than 100 million Americans don’t subscribe to an internet service but may access it through other means.
One of the factors that contribute to internet use is household income, with 14% of those earning less than $30,000 reporting no access to the service. Age is another big determinant, with 25% of those 65 and older not using the internet at all.
In practice, you likely can’t fix this. But you can ensure that your virtual outreach uses the tools your clients have access to. This may mean having an old-school phone call or connecting at odd hours when they are able to use borrowed internet.
Also, take the time to show your clients how to use new tools or software as needed. This can remove the initial overwhelm and help them feel more comfortable engaging.
Building flexibility into your virtual outreach can make it easier for clients to stick to your program.
4. Develop strong communication skills
In-person communication is challenging enough. The nuances of speech and cultural differences can give entirely new meanings to a simple conversation. Body language is also key for getting a complete picture of the clients’ situations. And physical closeness can make it easier to build rapport than virtual outreach.
But this doesn’t mean that you can’t get similar results via virtual outreach. The same skills you need for in-person communication can greatly improve the virtual experience for your clients. These include:
CHWs need to be ready to communicate virtually with clients and patients. They should be very clear about the purpose of a virtual meeting so they can offer resources and referrals that fit the need. This also means having those resources and materials ready and in a format that can be easily shared.
The key to successful outreach is effectively listening to what clients are communicating, both with words and without. The focus should be on what they share, what they’re reluctant to say, and any feelings that may be evident from their voice or attitude.
CHWs shouldn’t just listen to reply, but to understand their situation. To achieve this they should:
- Pay attention to body language on video visits.
- Be careful not to interrupt. Allow clients to speak freely and only interject when they’ve finished an idea.
- Ask clarifying questions as needed. They should dig into anything that’s unclear or lacks context in order to get a bigger picture view of the situation.
- Rephrase what clients have said to make doubly sure both parties understand what was communicated.
Cultural barriers and language differences can make health care more intimidating than it needs to be. And virtual outreach adds a new layer of discomfort to patients and clients. To help clients and patients feel comfortable and make use of shared resources and support, CHWs should avoid using technical jargon or over-complicated terms. They should explain visually when possible, whether that means using a video camera in a call or sharing images, charts, or graphics to convey a meaning.
Another way to clarify a point is by sharing it in different ways. CHWs can repeat themselves and emphasize the main takeaways multiple times to help clients retain complicated information. When possible, they should connect concepts with real-life examples to make it easier for clients to connect the dots and realize the importance of these seemingly abstract ideas.
An Effective Virtual Outreach Program Can Bridge The Gaps In Care For The Most Remote Populations
Providing better virtual outreach is a skill that takes time to develop. But with practice, the right training, processes and support, CHW teams can help people manage chronic conditions and avoid them in the first place. These skills will help now, while the pandemic is still disrupting services, and on into the future.