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3 Steps to Start Engaging with Today's Healthcare Consumer

Attentive group of healthcare consumers


Hospital marketing directors know: a high patient engagement level isn’t something you can accomplish in a day. It’s an exercise in building relationships with healthcare consumers. It’s a process, and it’s not an easy process. Healthcare consumers are a collection of individuals, and those individuals make up a spectrum. There’s no one way to reach all of them all the time.

Hospitals and healthcare organizations need to develop insights into the various consumer strata that make up their patient populations. In doing so, they can tailor their messaging, their communication channels and their marketing strategies to maximize the engagement effect.

What is patient engagement?

Effective patient engagement isn’t just about communicating with (or at) patients.  For a patient to be “engaged,” he or she must take an active part in managing his or her own health care. That depends on 5 factors. A patient must:

  • Be motivated to participate.
  • Be dedicated to complying with the treatment regimen.
  • Have enough understanding of his or her condition to provide reliable reports about changes in condition back to the provider.
  • Feel supported enough to continue undergoing treatment, even when things don’t go as planned or as hoped.
  • Feel satisfied in the care that has been provided.

For those conditions to be met, a provider or hospital system must render person-centered care. They need to show the healthcare consumer that his or her feelings and experience matter, yet some experts believe that healthcare represents one of the last large industries yet to embrace a consumer-centric business model.

Providers can no longer afford to isolate themselves from consumers’ feelings.

The healthcare industry has traditionally ascribed to a model in which providers were more concerned about medical science than the murkiness of patients’ emotions — patients’ feelings were subjective and not easily quantified. Scientific methodology demanded that providers insulate themselves as much as possible from unquantifiable factors and focus entirely on measurable outcomes.

But, as public funding sources have trickled off and consumer satisfaction has become more important to maintaining revenue streams, many providers have realized that they must, like Oz, come out from behind the curtain and directly engage the consumers who have come to them for help. Providers must humanize themselves, and they must allow their patients’ emotions to factor in to the consumer relationship.

As engagement consultant Greg Monaco wrote in AdAge, the healthcare industry, “must move from a purely transactional relationship to a selling relationship, with an emphasis on customer-first.”

Doing so, in this market environment, increases profits. Anthem — one of the country’s largest health insurers — discovered this in 2008, when it restructured to a more customer-focused business plan. According to the Harvard Business Review, the customer-centric model allowed Anthem to discover new business niches, lower its customers’ healthcare costs and provide greater transparency to consumers.

The result? Anthem’s return on assets (ROA) rose 36 percent in the four years following implementation of its customer-focused changes.

So, how could your organization improve its patient engagement efforts? Here are 3 easy steps:

1. Foster positive provider-patient conversations.

One New Jersey-based hospital organization, Barnabas Health System, has realized great gains in patient engagement by addressing provider-patient interactions. Its goal is to “foster a culture that inspires [patients’] trust and confidence in the staff,” according to Healthcare Finance associate editor Jeff Legasse.

"One of the things that we do to help with improving the patient experience is to really coach our employees to engage with the patient, and make sure they're connecting with them on a personal level," Barnabas’ engagement initiative leader, Maureen Harding, RN, told Legasse. "One of the best ways we can do that is to introduce ourselves. This is not a grassroots thing; you acknowledge the patient and anyone else in the room."

Too often organizations take for granted that their doctors, nurses, clinical managers and customer service reps know how to speak with a patient. That’s not always the case — some are great at relating to patient-consumers and others aren’t comfortable, or come across as gruff, harried, or uncaring. Regardless, customer/patient service training should be an ongoing process — there’s always room for improvement.

Moreover, even the best providers and reps can succumb to empathy fatigue.

Hospitals and healthcare organizations could address this by scheduling in regular, provider-led interdisciplinary sessions — like the Schwartz Center Rounds® — to discuss empathy and patient-centered care.

Or, your organization could try to stage semiannual, engaging, customer service-oriented seminars or workshops to help employees “rejuvenate the faith,” so to speak — something like an old-time tent revival for customer service training and discussions about maintaining quality assurance and patient satisfaction.

In my previous career at P&G, I worked with medical groups to help them with healthcare consumer insights and improved engagement methods – this was P&G’s value-added offering to healthcare organizations when it had a pharmaceuticals division.  We used P&G’s marketing and market research methods to help activate patient behaviors (e.g., medication adherence) but also assist healthcare organizations in better meeting patient needs. 

One prominent medical group in New Jersey had all of its staff trained in these healthcare consumer insights, changed their incentive structure to support the delivery of superior patient engagement and updated their advertising to reflect this dedication.  Consequently, patient satisfaction rose and this medical group enjoyed a significant bump in new patients.  This work was also the precursor to what c2b solutions does today.    

2. Test and recalibrate non-verbal communication skills.

Another tactic Barnabas Health has used, with excellent results, has been to record its providers in simulated patient interactions, then review and critique the results with its providers on an individual basis, with an eye toward improving interpersonal skills.

This fine-tuning process could, over time, help providers with weaker interpersonal skills to become more cognizant of their mannerisms — especially of body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues that patients pick up on, but which cannot easily be taught in classroom settings.

A consumer’s experience can hinge on something as simple as whether or not a doctor looks him or her in the eye. A study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that patients were less likely to rate their doctors as “excellent” if the patient perceives that the doctor spends too much time looking at a computer screen and not enough time looking at him or her.

That should be a clarion call to the American healthcare industry.

Even as the industry is turning to EMRs and integrated tech as means of improving outcomes, it runs the risk of negatively impacting the perceived care experience, which is the primary determinant of patient engagement and, ultimately, profits.

Contrary to prevailing wisdom within the industry, the relationship between engagement and outcomes remains unclear. But the relationship between patient engagement and repeat business is crystal clear.

While at least one peer-reviewed study has indicated that favorable surgical outcomes were not consistently associated with HCAHPS scores, engagement is nevertheless the keystone of patient retention. In a consumer-driven healthcare market, patient share is the primary determinant of long-term growth and profitability.

3. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

This goes hand in hand with empathy fatigue: train providers to leave their prejudices and preconceptions outside the exam room door.

Biases are easy to fall into. They take seconds to form and lifetimes to change. Often, they’re born of anecdotes and personal observations on the ward. But not every patient fits a pre-conceived model. And bias leads to flawed practice, poor outcomes and disengaged, dissatisfied patients.

c2b solutions worked with TriHealth in Cincinnati to train its health coaches to use market research insights to improve patient engagement. Using psychographic segmentation, the TriHealth health coaches found that it was much easier to form relationships with patients and identify motivational triggers to behavior change.

Patient engagement starts with rendering patient-centered care.

Healthcare is, by definition, addressing the physical and mental needs of human beings. Too often, providers and healthcare organizations allow themselves to forget that humans are, by nature emotional, so emotional factors must be addressed in order for the care they provide to be well received.

We know that a customer-first business model is essential in other industries for profitability and growth. There’s little difference between “customer-first” and “patient-centered.”

If you want to improve patient engagement and retention, develop your organization’s understanding of the segments that make up its patient population, and practice the 3 easy steps above.

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


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