Posted: August 2, 2017

In today's increasingly competitive healthcare market, people are approaching their medical and health decisions as they do many other big ticket purchases — they expect high-quality, effective, convenient, personal, and cost-effective service. If a provider can't deliver a good experience, one that makes them feel valued, they won't hesitate to go somewhere else. But once they find what they are looking for, they'll be loyal customers.

For a variety of reasons, there’s a huge gap between what consumers expect and what most provider organizations deliver. Why is that? For one thing, many organizations make the fatal mistake of comparing the experience they offer to the experience delivered by the organization across town — investing in “me too” strategies that may require a lot of heavy lifting, yet provide no real differentiation. Organizations would be much better served to do the research required to understand what consumers in their market really value, assess how the patterns of choosing everything from insurance to primary or specialist providers has changed, and then deliver against those expectations.

The digital-personal divide
The rise of lightning-fast communication has spilled over into a similar expectation for healthcare services. Healthcare industries will hit the mark with consumers if they recognize that consumers have precious little time on their hands. The majority of consumers use some kind of smartphone, tablet, or even a desktop to schedule restaurant tables, order groceries, and pick flights. They expect to do the same with healthcare. Many healthcare consumers prefer to use electronic communication to schedule routine appointments, access medical records and notes, ask questions, or get test results.

A study by Strategy& showed that “more than a quarter of respondents listed digital as their preferred method of engagement in their health — as opposed to office visits or phone consultations." While the healthcare industry might be used to the old model of communication, switching over to this approach for those who want and expect it will make for a much more satisfied consumer.

With a seeming demand for fast and impersonal interactions, today's healthcare consumer actually craves more personal interaction when it counts the most. They might want to schedule an appointment while waiting in line at the grocery store, but when they get to the physician's office, they want focused attention on them.

For example, when patients are seeing a new specialist practicing under the brand umbrella, or are required to submit “outside” medical records prior to an appointment, their expectation is that their records will be thoroughly reviewed prior to the visit and that the treatment plan and discussion will be comprehensive to address their entire medical situation. When prior medical history isn’t incorporated into the conversation during the appointment, trust is immediately degraded. What is the advantage of doing business with multiple providers in a single health system if data sharing isn’t better than going elsewhere?

Digital methods can easily weave in with the personal and efficient high-quality care consumers crave. Scheduling a virtual visit as a follow-up to an in person appointment is one way physicians and nurses might be able to accommodate consumers' requests to save time and money, if it's appropriate for quality care. For example, if a patient is newly diagnosed with hypertension during an office visit, a follow-up virtual visit two weeks later to assess the efficacy of their new medication demonstrates thorough, but time and cost-effective, continuity of care.

The cost of cures
Consumers will gravitate to the healthcare organization that is, in effect, “getting it" — that is, the health system they feel is giving fair time to all of their needs and concerns. While consumers are primarily worried about their health and want excellent care and up-to-date information, they're also a consumer base pressed for time and worried about rising costs.

Studies show that all generations, but especially Millennials, are concerned with the high cost of healthcare and want to be able to discuss that with providers. After all, as consumers are absorbing more out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare, they want to know how they can save some of that money. And with out-of-pocket healthcare costs expected to rise to 5.5% from 3.2% by 2023 for some, the financial implications are potentially enormous. A recent report revealed that 41% of millennials ask for estimates before receiving medical services, which is where an online cost estimator for certain procedures could help, and 75% use online access to medical records to check labs and other reports.

Consumers are still number one
One of the pillars of a good healthcare consumer experience should remain having a primary focus on the consumer. Consumers don't want to feel like they are being shuffled through a rotation of afternoon appointments. They want healthcare providers who'll listen to them, who'll take the time to assess the whole healthcare situation, not just today's complaint of excessive headaches, for example.

Given the complexities of what some consumers want and expect, there's potential for healthcare to miss the mark. How can that happen? If providers have repeated requests for online scheduling and don't implement a new scheduling process, they might find consumers leaving a practice. And if an office visit feels rushed or if consumers feel like their provider doesn't remember their concerns, they will seek out someone who makes them feel more of an individual and less of a number. If a specialist has ways of lowering the costs of a procedure, healthcare consumers want to hear about it. They want to know their options and they are involved enough to ask. Providers need to take that seriously and oblige them with a method to help them budget for healthcare costs.

This complexity, of moving back to the old-time, consumer-focused care model within the very modern framework of electronic health records and specialized health care, can seem at odds, but for the industry to move forward successfully, it will have to adapt to what the consumer wants. If not, the many available choices will just result in consumers leaving practices to go where they feel wanted, the access is easy, and the costs, if not controlled, are at least explained.

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