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8 Tips for Addressing Expectations of Today's Healthcare Consumers

Healthcare consumer family and physician

As healthcare consumers take on more of the financial responsibility for their care, their value expectations will have a direct impact on their health decisions. As consumers become more conscious of the actual cost of their care, most will naturally move to mitigate their out-of-pocket expenditures.

Some of that will come in the form of self-regulated usage, some in the form of shop-and-compare behavior and some, hopefully, in the form of a growing tendency for individuals to make voluntary healthy lifestyle choices.

Digitization has, in general, changed the game for all consumer-facing industries. Consumers demand speed, transparency and open access.

These demands are now so deeply ingrained in American consumer culture that it is difficult to imagine healthcare consumerism ever going away, regardless of whether the United States remains on a multi-payor system or moves toward single-payor care. Whomever by and however the bill is footed, American healthcare consumers expect the industry to become customer-friendly.

How can this be done? Here are 8 tips for addressing healthcare patient expectations and demands in this fast-evolving environment.

1. Find a way to provide on-demand service.

The American consumer's world is steeped in immediacy. This has been shaped by mass communication, by digital communication and by our own innate individualism: cars instead of buses, fast food, ATMs, express grocery checkouts, 24-7 online shopping, on-demand video and more. Americans are accustomed to getting what they want at the moment they want it. Americans don't like waiting in lines.

And when they're sick or injured, they can tolerate waiting even less. Yet the average American healthcare consumer spends an estimated 1,332 hours per year waiting to get in to see a care provider. Why, then, wouldn't a consumer forego primary care in favor of an urgent care or ER visit?

Let's imagine for a moment what an on-demand primary care experience would look and feel like. What would happen if practices operated simultaneously on two resource allocation models?

Some healthcare consumers may be highly loyal to a particular doctor, so they would probably choose to go the appointment route. But other consumers just know that they need a prescription or minor procedure, and they don't particularly care who within the practice provides the service as long as they can get it quickly.

For those consumers, it makes sense for practices or hospitals to staff round-the-clock minor care providers for walk-in patients — first-come, first-served, as in the ER or at an urgent care, with the additional value adds of (a) ready access to the patient's whole medical record, (b) a lower co-pay and (c) a lower overall patient financial responsibility.

Moreover, what would happen if the pharmacy were also located in the doctor's office? In a convenience-based, consumer-driven healthcare environment, it's reasonable to foresee a day in which the doctor's office, urgent care clinic and pharmacy are all rolled into one service line.

2. Build your brand.

Most doctors are poor self-marketers. For one thing, marketing is expensive. And the smaller the practice, the less able it typically is to foot the cost.

The few who are excellent self-marketers often find themselves viewed askance by colleagues who suspect (in some cases, rightly) their ethics and their medical decision-making.

But with the advent of consumer-driven healthcare, it has become increasingly important for physicians and practices to market themselves. They must make consumers aware of their presence. And they must develop and tailor a voice that will hold the attention of the consumer demographics they wish to reach.

In some ways, hospital systems' recent moves to gobble up private practices could alleviate the tug-of-war many doctors face between bank account and soul (though maybe not that part of their soul wanting to remain independent). Hospital systems assume the onus of marketing their providers. Hospital systems can afford to build brands around their providers. And as the market becomes demand-driven, effective branding will become critical.

3. Create consumer expectations. And deliver on them.

Branding should be based on building and managing patients' expectations. Many healthcare providers, though, don't have a clear understanding of what their consumers want.

According to Healthcare Finance, "a 2012 HealthLeaders Media survey asked hospital executives about priorities for improving patient experience.  The top recommendations included interactive bedside computers, quiet time to ensure rest, new facilities, private rooms and food on demand.  In contrast, the results of CMS satisfaction scores, which have been published online since 2008, indicate that patients desire cleaner rooms, happy people, greater respect, improved communication and attentiveness to their needs and concerns."

In other words, where hospital execs were focusing on fine details of care delivery, patient-consumers were focusing on the general emotive experiences associated with being in the hospital.

This demonstrates that the healthcare industry often can't see the forest for the trees. There is a failure to walk a mile in patients' shoes, as it were. Healthcare organizations don't always take advantage of the consumer insights available through, for example, psychographic modeling. That needs to change. Providers need to listen to patients more than they talk at them.

The c2b Consumer Diagnostic, a national study of healthcare consumers, contains more than 50 million data points on what consumers want from the healthcare system, as well as attitudes and behaviors pertaining to various channels of healthcare delivery. This study was developed based on decades of experience among the founders of c2b solutions as they led such work for the healthcare division of Procter & Gamble. 

One theme that keeps rising to the top of consumer wants and needs is the desire for excellent communication skills and customer service. While working with a prominent Northcentral health system to help it define its brand, this health system was adamant about touting its advanced technologies and medical research. Employing concept testing and brand equity monitor techniques from P&G, we found current and prospective patients were more likely to judge the health system on interpersonal skills among clinicians and administrative staff and the health system’s treatment of patients as human beings instead of numbers or “walking health conditions.”

For branding to be effective in the long-term, managing patient expectations must be borne out in the clinic, in follow-up and on the business side. To that end…

4. Rely on positive messaging.

A patient or caregiver dealing with an illness or injury in the family has enough to worry about. Our messaging shouldn't stress them further.

Too often, wellness-related messaging is gloom and doom:

  • "If you don't do this, you could get that."
  • "If you do too much of this, you might develop such-and-such."
  • "Be aware, be aware, be aware!"

Many healthcare consumers are aware. Often, they don't need cajoling — many just need an empathetic presence to turn to. They need a gentle voice. They need to focus on a positive end result and what treatment will allow them to accomplish. They need encouragement and hope.

5. Foster alignment between clinical management and financial management.

A doctor might consistently provide knowledgeable, caring and convenient service in the clinic. He or she might exhibit a high cure rate, a low recurrence rate, make few medical misjudgments and employ the best infection control practices.

In a consumer-driven healthcare environment, all those are expected. In fact, they're demanded. And they may not amount to much if the consumer has a poor experience in paying the bill.

Are bills or explanations of benefits confusing? Can the consumer make payments, manage their accounts and review charges online? Can customers tell in real-time the status of their claim?

6. Develop better mHealth solutions.

According to Accenture, less than 2 percent of patients are being reached by hospital-developed mobile applications. Is that an indictment of the efficacy of mHealth?

Not necessarily. The problem seems to be that hospital systems are just behind the curve in figuring out what consumers want out of their mobile platforms. The consulting firm found that healthcare consumers consistently rank providers' mobile apps less useful than those developed independently by third-party developers.

The 3 functions healthcare consumers want most?

  1. Access to their medical records.
  2. The ability to book and modify appointments.
  3. The ability to electronically request prescription refills.

Apps should add functional value to a busy healthcare consumer's life. They shouldn't be a time drain.

7. Personalize care delivery wherever possible.

As in any consumer-facing industry, personalization can be a loyalty builder. Think about it — why are some patients intensely loyal to their doctors? "She knows me."

Respectfully calling a patient by name, tailoring communications to his or her preferred channels, modifying language to maximize impact and motivation — these are all critical to creating a personalized brand of care delivery that can ensure effective engagement and loyalty.

8. Standardize business procedures and clinic workflows wherever possible.

Marriott. McDonald's. Chik-Fil-A. Ford. What do any of these companies have to do with medicine? Nothing. But they do teach us clear lessons about what makes for an effective consumer experience.

Each of them carved out a business empire by providing remarkably consistent service across all outlets and across all units. A Big Mac made by a McDonald's in New York should hypothetically taste no different than one made at a McDonald's in LA. When a consumer stays a night in a full-service Marriott, he or she expects to have not only a clean room, but an in-house restaurant with many of the same signature items on the menu, access to the bell stand and concierge and upgraded amenities.

Now that healthcare is moving into a demand-driven model, consistency across clinics, doctors' offices and hospitals within a given system must be attained and maintained. And that consistency shouldn't be measured solely in clinical outcomes and financial best practices — it must be measured in meeting healthcare patient expectations and demands.

Psychographic Segmentation and its Practical Application in Patient Engagement and Behavior Change

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