Consumerism has been a trending topic in healthcare for several years. Some warned that the increase in consumer research could negatively affect doctor-patient relations, as patients felt empowered to challenge practitioner wisdom through their new found online knowledge. While others extolled the benefits of it, as it might force doctors to take a hard look at their off-the-shelf treatment plans and come up with better solutions for patients.
Consumerism was born, but not fully baked. Fast-forward to last month, and we see consumerism expanding in healthcare quickly. Geisinger announces refunds for unsatisfied customers! It's shocking! It's alarming! It's… nothing new, especially if you've been living in the world of the consumer.
But, traditional consumer-oriented industries and healthcare are different. Simply modeling tactics in healthcare after tactics in other industries won't work. I'm not looking to sign up for a loyalty program with my urologist anytime soon. Instead, valuable lessons can be learned by looking at this from a higher level. Rather than looking at other consumer-oriented industries' tactics, looking at strategies and processes can give us better insight into what will make a greater impact on the future of the healthcare experience.
The First Step: Understand the Journey
To maximize the patient experience, you have to first understand the full patient experience. It's not enough to look at a particular point in time, you need to look at the whole process.
The healthcare patient journey isn't that far off from the journey of consumers in other industries, but there are important differences.
The healthcare consumer and retail consumer journeys follows a similar path, but the tech opportunities differ greatly.
In many industries, the need and research phases see the highest investments in digital technology, but for healthcare, digital technologies can have a great impact on the lives of consumers further down the path. While many consumer brands step away at the point of purchase; healthcare, and its supporting technologies, can often do the most good starting at the point of care.
Step 2: Consider Purpose
Once you have an understanding of the consumer journey, the next task is to define your organization's purpose and determine how it shapes your interactions with consumers as they move through the process, and interact with your brand both on- and offline. The purpose should be communicated by the way your employees interact with patients, as well as reflected in your online presence. A clear purpose will help you focus on the right strategies and tactics for your business, and keep you from getting distracted by fads and flashy ideas.
If we look back at the Geisenger example, we can ask how that fits with purpose. If the purpose of the business was to maximize revenue, it wouldn't fit. A higher purpose such as, "Improving the lives of community members" fits better. A community-oriented purpose might have improved patient experience as a strategy, and refunds for dissatisfied patients as a tactic.
Step 3: Create Purpose-Driven Tactics for Every Phase of the Journey
Once we have a consumer journey mapped out and a purpose identified, we can start to map out the strategies and tactics that will support our purpose throughout the consumer's journey.
For arguments sake, let's assume your purpose is the one outlined above: "Improving the lives of community members." If we look back at our consumer journey, we can start to think through the strategies and tactics that will make a difference in the lives of community members. From a technology standpoint, in 2016, consider the following for each phase to support your purpose and enhance the digital patient experience:
In traditionally consumer-centric industries, generating needs is a common practice. Did you need a phone that could connect to the internet in 1995? Do you now? In traditional healthcare, generating needs is less common. In community-driven healthcare, generating needs will be an important task. You will need to do more to ensure that the population is aware of its needs.
The technology is still pretty light in this phase, but there are a few supporting tactics that healthcare companies can leverage to generate and understand general and individual patient needs. For example, you could use your CRM or EHR system to email surveys to patients to gather need-based data to better serve and understand your patients. The data gathered from these surveys can help you identify potential patterns among patients to identify needs, and also use the data to better personalize each patient appointment and experience. Healthcare companies can also use their CRM or EHR systems to send out emails to patients to notify them of flu shot availability, or promote wellness programs.
As we continue in the shallow(ish) end of the technology pool, the research phase is all about web presence.
Reflecting on our example purpose -- Improving lives of community members -- a website can help consumers as they research by providing the right content. A content strategy should support tools that increase health knowledge and strengthen health literacy of the community. Following this purpose, your website should help consumers understand conditions and recognize when they need to make an appointment. It should also provide them with the information they need to get a feel for what it will be like to work with your practice and whether the practice will be a good fit for them.
On the surface, the booking phase seems to be one that is particularly inward looking. The way in which it supports a health system is obvious (more appointments = more money), how it supports the community at large is less so. However, this phase is essential to improved community care and patient experience, as booking can be a major obstacle to an individual's ability to receive care. Health systems have begun to make the process of booking easier on patients within an EHR, but for the community at large, and potential new patients, the process is still cumbersome.
Removing barriers to entry by providing a new mix of appointment booking options can greatly improve the health of the community. The mix of tools for booking appointments should shift from the phone-only system that exists in many practices to a system that supports digital tools. Yes, booking through a website, but also chat on that same website, as well as text to schedule and potentially even integrations with third party chat apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Third party apps may sound wild, but a similar tactic has been working in China through WeChat for the past year. As the demographics and usage preferences of the healthcare audience shift, this type of pattern will become more commonplace.
When it comes to care, the health of the community can be improved by extending the reach of a health system. This can mean a number of things, including an expanded role for telehealth. Video chat has gained momentum recently and should continue to do so, particularly for preliminary evaluations, as it allows doctors to reach patients quickly and also in areas that may not be readily accessible to healthcare services.
When a patient is actually in the office, it's important to consider the shift in the doctor's role. Doctors and their teams can no longer simply be practitioners, they must also be educators. Appointments should turn into education sessions. Instead of quickly jumping to a prescribed approach, doctors should use tools to explain options clearly. Every room now has a computer and a screen in it, it's time to turn those outward and use them to facilitate explanations of options. Other new tools used to display 3D models of the body will also become important.
After the appointment, the real work begins. Patients are expected to do more on their own than ever before, and they need to be educated and prepared to take on the balance of care that occurs outside a clinical setting.
This can mean a number of things. To begin, better sharing of appointment notes, apps for tracking progress, and improved communication between appointments can help prepare patients. Native and web apps can facilitate much of this work, and the right strategy depends on the usage patterns of your audience. The key is to find the right tactics to connect with and enable consumers.
Step 4: Observe and Optimize
Perhaps the best thing healthcare can adopt from consumer-centric industries in 2016, is to never stop learning and improving. Collect data, conduct user research studies, find out what works and what doesn't. The tactics mentioned above are a great starting point for a single purpose next year, but the key to deploying the right tactics for your consumers is to never stop learning and improving.