Healthcare consumer behaviors have shifted faster than anyone could have anticipated. Over the last decade, the rise of digital services has created an appetite for convenience that many health systems struggle to satisfy.
Joe Ness, COO of OHSU Healthcare, and Preston Gee, VP of strategic marketing at CHRISTUS Health, say health systems should adapt to digital consumerism if they want to have any hope of hanging on to their customers.
Here’s what that consumer behavior looks like and what health systems can do to buck the trend.
Healthcare Consumer Behaviors
NRC Health’s research supports Ness’s and Gee’s conclusion. A 2018 NRC Health Market Insights survey of more than 300,000 consumer households, makes it clear that patients prize convenience and are willing to stray outside the traditional healthcare system to find it.
Retail and telehealth on the rise
Fast, convenient and (relatively) affordable, retail clinics are symbolic of what modern consumers want from their healthcare providers.
There’s a retail clinic within a 10-minute drive for more than 30% of the U.S. population. That makes them an urgent competitive threat to traditional healthcare systems. Their wide availability has caused primary care office visits to decline by 18% from 2012 to 2016 and kept hospital volumes virtually flat for five years.
“We need to be more aware that our customers have lots of options,” Gee says. Nontraditional providers win customers by offering convenience and speed—virtues not always found in the traditional hospital or clinic setting.
The same forces explain the rapid growth of telehealth as well. Telehealth bypasses even the slight inconvenience of the 10-minute drive, bringing clinicians directly to consumers. Telehealth’s popularity is surging: 60% of employers offer some form of digital healthcare appointments to employees, and Kaiser Permanente reports that 50% of its 2016 patient visits were conducted online through a telehealth platform.
Ness points out that not every health system is ready to offer telehealth to patients. “Telehealth is a major part of evolving our service,” he says. “But it’s going to be a slow trickle to get providers to adopt it—not a big bang.”
Deferring Care Still a Problem
Affordability is even more important to consumers than convenience. High costs frequently divert consumers from providers they’d otherwise prefer.
“Even if they like a doctor,” Ness says, “they’ll leave if their insurance plan changes. They just can’t justify paying the out-of-network costs.”
An intimidating price tag can even cause consumers to stay away from providers altogether. NRC Health’s Market Insights data has found that, in both 2017 and 2018, 22.7% of patients have delayed “necessary medical treatment,” citing the fact that they are unable to pay for services.
“The biggest issue of our time is care costs,” Gee says. “There’s a rising chorus of consumers saying that we’re paying way too much for care.”
What Healthcare Systems Should Do
Ness and Gee recommend three tactics that will not only improve how patients contend with the costs of their care, but also help anticipate the competitive threat of retail clinics.
1. Bring transparency to billing
Healthcare bills don’t need to be unclear or confusing. Transparency in billing shows respect for patients’ preferences and empowers them to make informed decisions about their care.
“It’s time to stop using the cloak of complexity as a reason for not being more price-transparent,” Gee says. “Once we do, I’m optimistic that it will help bring big changes to the market.”
2. Borrow tactics from retail clinics
Traditional providers can win back market share by integrating the same solutions that retail clinics bring to consumers.
“‘We’ll meet you where you are’ needs to become an operational priority,” Gee says. “We need to be more flexible with hours and navigability.”
Ness argues that what patients really like about retail clinics is their ease and accessibility. “Patients want to be able to schedule an appointment online, for this afternoon. If we give them the digital infrastructure to do that, and if we improve throughput enough to give them the appointment slots, we’ll be much more competitive.”
3. Deliver what retail clinics can’t
Health systems have two powerful advantages that they should press. The first is continuity. Retail clinics often fall short in communicating with other providers or meaningfully using visit data to personalize care. This is an opportunity for traditional providers to shine.
“Making care a continuous relationship is very important,” Gee says. “Being more communicative and having a better overall understanding of the patient is how a provider stands out.”
The second advantage is humanity. “Healthcare is a people business,” Ness says. “There’s no substitute for that.”
He argues that organizations should devote themselves to maximizing the time that clinicians have to spend with patients. The more time clinicians have to talk, the stronger their relationships will be with patients. “Find systems to support frontline staff. Give them the time and the opportunity to connect,” Ness says.
Still more to learn
Consumer intelligence is key to sparking meaningful relationships between providers and consumers. The NRC Health 2019 Healthcare Consumer Report is packed with more data-driven insights and expert recommendations.
About the Author | NRC Health
NRC Health helps healthcare organizations better understand the people they care for and design experiences that inspire loyalty.