COVID19 is one of the biggest health and economic emergencies that any of us will have ever faced. This is a global pandemic and it leaves many assisted reproduction providers with their hands tied.
Many IVF clinics rely on overseas patients and had already adopted a telehealth system for consultations. Patients complete tests and take meds in their home country then only travel to the clinic for their actual IVF cycle.
A global market of IVF patients became a local market
Suspension of many flights reduced the pool of patients able to travel for treatment. Overnight a global market of IVF patients became a local market. The operations and marketing departments had to think and think quickly.
Many conversations happened around the globe about how this crisis would impact their clinic. Whilst an IVF procedure is low risk, it is still not without risk and that had to be weighed up. The safety of patients and staff is paramount. With all affected countries throwing every medical resource to the front line to care for COVID19 patients, it would be irresponsible to put any patient at risk by continuing fertility treatment.
Suspend all fertility treatments
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) (1) were the first to issue guidelines. This was closely followed by the British Fertility Society (BFS) (2). Both advised their members to suspend all fertility treatments until further notice. They advised that patients already in cycle should now freeze eggs and/or embryos and complete the cycle at a later date.
So, that’s that then. Should we all shut up shop and go into quarantine for the foreseeable future!
No, far from it. It’s actually time to go into overdrive! From home, where possible!
Firstly, depending on where you are in the world, your clinic will be following different guidelines. For clinics in the US and the UK, guidelines are pretty similar, however other parts of the world are business as usual, for now.
Patients are heartbroken at having their cycle cancelled
I have spent the last 16 years marketing to IVF patients internationally. One thing I have learned in that time is that patients will move heaven and earth to have their treatment. Patients are heartbroken at having their cycle cancelled, as are the healthcare professionals treating them.
As we all know, time is not on the side of many fertility patients. However, in trying to reassure patients, the one thing we can’t tell them is WHEN we can reschedule their treatment. Many understand the gravity of the situation and are understanding, but some will be angry and frustrated. Remember to provide support for your staff having to deal with these patients. Everyone is scared including your own team.
Some clinics offer obstetric care as well as assisted reproduction. So, some clinics will remain open and care for their pregnant patients. There are also new guidelines from both the American College of Obstetricians Gynecologists (ACOG) (3) and The Royal College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians (4).
Government guidance around the world is placing pregnant women in the vulnerable category. There no evidence yet that COVID19 passes from mother to baby in the uterus. However, pregnant women experience immunological changes making them more susceptible to the virus.
This leaves many operational procedures in urgent review.
Assisted reproduction clinics are asking themselves the following questions:
Who can work from home?
Look at the role of each member of staff, can phones be diverted so reception staff can work from home? Can your nurses work from home on patient phone calls and videocalls? Can your Drs carry out their consultations via phone or video?
What do you do with members of staff who are pregnant?
Amid this crisis, there are new guidelines from RCOG as referenced above. Depending on the stage of pregnancy they may be able to work from home on phone or video calls. But after 28 weeks they must avoid direct face to face patient contact.
How do you protect those staff who need to be in the lab?
Clean and disinfect every part of the clinic. That’s down to every door handle, light switch and any surface that anyone may have touched. Use special cleaners and disinfectants for all medical equipment. Check manufacturers instructions so that you don’t void the warranty! Limit contact of lab staff with patients. If they do need to interact with patients, keep contact to a minimum and do wear PPE!
Do nurses and sonographers who have scanning duties need protection?
Interestingly, the scan room can be one of the most dangerous places for staff. The scan room should have a deep clean after EVERY patient. Use paper bed covers instead of linen. Clean the sides of the bed where the patient may have touched. Ask patients to cross their arms over their chest during the scan to avoid hand contact. Clean the ultrasound equipment thoroughly, this includes screen, keyboard and probes. Use separate sterilized gel sachets if you can as opposed to the bottle. Staff should wear PPE including goggles.
When and how often do you bring patients in for routine scans and check-ups?
Depending on the patients’ medical history, try to defer scans where possible. Always triage patients 24 hours prior to their appointment to determine if they are suffering with any COVID19 symptoms. If they are, reschedule the appointment.
How do you keep assisted reproduction patients reassured?
Stay in regular contact, schedule follow up calls. If you usually speak on the phone, schedule a video call. If they are in a country that is currently quarantined, it’s nice to see a friendly face. Patients now have a long wait for treatment and will look at the competition, so keep them engaged.
This list is far from definitive; however, it does raise some important questions and this is where your marketing and communications team come to the forefront. They need to handle internal and external communications.
COVID19 marketing blog
Over the coming weeks, I will be writing a weekly blog on marketing and communications through this crisis. In my next blog, I will talk about how to keep future patients engaged. In a crisis the knee jerk reaction is to put all marketing on hold. In my experience this is damaging in the long run and whilst COVID19 is unprecedented, it is happening at different stages around the world.
This means some patients can travel and some clinics are still offering IVF. We will all emerge from this at different times. There is so much in the news to follow and many people are on information overload. Your voice needs to be heard above all the other voices, so we’ll look at ways to do that.
Right now, many clinics are privately owned and the elephant in the room is how long can they maintain overheads with no revenue stream? We’ll look at the financial aspects in the weekly blog, which will publish every Wednesday. Other considerations are how patients will also be impacted by the financial cost of COVID19, again another area to be explored.
Our editor, Neil Madden is currently spending his days monitoring all professional bodies and associations around the world. Advice and guidelines are changing daily and we are sharing as much data and research as we can to keep you abreast of developments.
I am keen to speak to clinics in different countries and pool our knowledge, so if you can spare 20 mins, please drop me a line so we can talk about your objectives, communications and marketing strategy.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Veronica Montgomery, Clinic and Patient Liaison Consultant
The Fertility Hub