Posted: February 15, 2018

A shopper visits an apparel store online, browses the offerings, buys a sweater, and confirms shipping. All the while, that store is gaining a wealth of information about that consumer's browsing habits, preferences, budget, and buying habits. The retailer can persist that data and use it not only to develop and market new products, but to deliver personalized recommendations and services to that same customer across multiple digital channels – email, social, and the web – with the goal of creating brand loyalty and driving future sales.

By the time a consumer researches your physicians, services, and facilities online and makes an appointment, what do you know about them? What information do you have that can make their in-person service experience better? By the time they’re treated and discharged, what else have you learned about their preferences and habits? What valuable information is hiding in their medical chart? Their patient satisfaction survey? Your financial system? What do you know about them that can be used to provide more personalized support during their recovery, build brand advocacy and loyalty, and potentially cross-sell additional services over time?

Consumer Focus

When it comes to understanding the consumer experience and managing consumer satisfaction, healthcare lags well behind other consumer-focused industries.

Only 37% of hospital organizations treat consumer expectations as a high priority, with fewer than 10% “consistently applying and building consumer-centric capabilities," according to the 2017 State of Consumerism in Healthcare survey of more than 125 hospitals and health systems by Kaufman, Hall & Associates.

“Healthcare systems in the US have only recently begun planning around the consumer experience," says Rupen Patel, Chief Executive Officer at Influence Health. “We are at this interesting juncture where cost sharing and decision making is being shifted to the consumer and the internet has enabled a high degree of information sharing about the quality of care, as well as the experience consumers receive.  The basis of competition is changing from attracting and retaining physician relationships to attracting and retaining consumers directly." As a result, he adds, “Health systems are having to learn how to be more like consumer businesses.”

For instance, the dental industry has a low customer satisfaction rating relative to other industries, according to Improving The Dental Patient Experience: 3 Foundational Practices for Providers & Payers, a 2017 survey of 2,000 patients by WestMonroe Partners.

“Participants indicated that dentist quality matters far more to them than network size," wrote the study's authors. They concluded that the industry can learn a great deal about consumer satisfaction by studying best practices in the retail industry, which has a long history of understanding and meeting consumer demand. The dental industry isn't that far off from hospitals and health systems in terms of consumer expectations.

Patel also suggests studying consumer-focused industries. “In healthcare, the focus seems to be more on getting big and replicating procedures and processes vs understanding the local consumer needs and supplying tailored models to best fit those needs," he says. “For example, the need can be around convenience. It can be around price. It can be around quality of care. It can be around geography. It can be around a simple, consistent experience. It can be around quality of ancillary services. It can be around access to research. It can be around relationships and trusted advice."

Consumer Feedback/Ask the Patient

The Kaufman report also notes that providers tend to be more reactive (addressing consumer complaints as they arise) than proactive (taking measures in advance to improve the consumer experience).

In perspective, that's not surprising. We know far too little about a patient's experience as a consumer. Reading a medical chart may help determine if they should return for a follow-up visit, but it won't help determine if they want to return, or want to return to that specific clinic. For that, the industry needs better methods of understanding the people who walk, or might someday walk, through their doors.

Unfortunately, the healthcare system relies too much on the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey for such data, according to Patel. Developed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, HCAHPS asks patients to rate the hospital for specific factors, such as cleanliness, noise levels, and interaction with doctors and nurses.

“This discourages creativity and innovation and starts with the assumption that the delivery of healthcare is a commodity," he says. “In my opinion, creating a truly distinctive consumer experience goes beyond HCAHPS scores, and a true measure of consumer sentiment is needed around the entire healthcare experience before, during, and after the visit. With all the digital methods available to us today, we should have a more accurate read of the consumer."

Fortunately, at least one comprehensive survey gives health systems an inkling of what consumers really want from them. Many patients today are looking for new services and are willing to pay for them, according to Complexity and Opportunity: A Survey of US Health Consumers' Worries and Wants, a 2016 survey of 2,016 consumers by the firm Oliver Wyman.

The survey found that 38% are “definitely" or “maybe" willing to pay more money for a same-day appointment with a family doctor; and 36% would pay more to guarantee an appointment with a specialist within a week, for a doctor to visit them in their home, or to visit a retail clinic.

New Directions

At least some of these services, such as home visits and same-day appointments, seem straight out of our parents' or grandparents' generation. Are consumers just feeling nostalgic for “the good old days" or does this indicate a deeper, untapped level of consumer demand?

“The need for convenient care has always been there,” says Patel. “In many ways, it has been de-prioritized for so long that it feels new.  With technological change moving so fast in other areas of our lives – like say having a self-driving car picking you up just around the horizon – by comparison the experience consumers have with healthcare starts to feel even more dated.  Now add to that new models of care emerging and the cost sharing shift, consumers simply have more options and they are gaining more every day.”

Now that the rising cost of healthcare has forced patients to think and choose like consumers, can providers accommodate a demand for more “high touch" service while still maintaining the same quality of care, or has the industry become so technologically complex that doctors can no longer perform like their predecessors once did — quickly, at home, out of little black bag?

“There are, today, clinicians, including MDs, who do home visits," says Patel. “At the same time, there are a whole range of potential new services that are emerging, including care in or near the home, a range of self-testing and monitoring technologies, and sophisticated telemedicine platforms. The challenge in this new environment is to build carefully architected digital consumer experiences that ensure a seamless and personalized experience across all touch points."

By engaging with patients as consumers, listening to their wants and needs, and developing a mix of services to meet those needs, a provider organization can differentiate itself from its competition, carve out its own industry niche, and drive new revenue.

Want more insight into delivering more successful healthcare consumer experiences? Read our guide to Healthcare Consumer Experience.