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Shopping for healthcare, says one expert, is very different than shopping at the local mall. “And it always should be,” he adds emphatically.
His point is well taken. Discussions about healthcare consumerism often seem to fall back on comparisons to car and TV shopping. Millennials and their younger cousins, the pundits tell us, will soon insist on being able to compare physician ratings and surgical prices on their smartphones, the way they would if they were shopping for a new washing machine. They’ll then make savvy decisions based on a few simple interactions.
The problem with that assumption is that, as complex as some machines may seem to the average consumer, the inner workings of cars, big-screen TVs and washing machines are child’s play compared to the inner workings of human beings. Healthcare consumerism is never going to be that easy.
Still, as Sachin Jain, MD, the President and CEO of the CareMore Health System (and the expert quoted at the top) puts it: “This is not to say that the embrace of [healthcare] consumerism is unfounded or misplaced.” Rather, he says, what’s needed is to unlock its true potential by better understanding patients, their goals, and their priorities.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about what motivates patient consumers in an evolving healthcare landscape. But some shifts are clearly inevitable.
As a result of “the explosion of digital tools to manage health,” patients now demand better customer service, greater convenience, and reduced costs, says Deloitte. Consumerism will require healthcare professionals to massively change the ways they “market, deliver, and charge for their services,” says NRC Health. Providers, it adds, will need to “focus on building their brands” and “strive to operate more like a retail business in a highly competitive market.”
Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy argues that “discretionary choices are increasingly driven by convenience, amenability to control … and the prevalence of mobile apps” and that the same factors will “greatly influence how people interact with the health care sector.
Patients or consumers?
But as HealthLeaders points out, healthcare decisions can’t always be made calmly and deliberately. Rather, they’re often made under duress. And care often has to be coordinated, so choosing one physician or hospital may not be enough. There’s also insurance to consider. Which providers are affiliated with which payers? “And unlike most consumer choices,” it adds, “the human connection between the patient and the provider can hold great sway over a patient’s decision.”
Seriously ill people, says Dr. Jain, “always prefer being considered and cared for as ‘patients’ instead of as ‘consumers.’”
Some mysteries solved
Not everything is a mystery, however. Research from Healthgrades suggests that consumers are more likely to select a specialist if they have access to three objective metrics: experience, hospital quality, and patient satisfaction.
Additionally, transparency — even if to only a small degree — can make a measurable difference in the choices healthcare consumers make. That, suggests Roger C. Holstein, Vice Chairman of Healthgrades’ board of directors, may be because transparency is such a rare commodity in health care. “The health systems rapidly adopting transparency are reaping the benefits,” he says, “because consumers are more likely to trust those who expose more content than those who don’t.”
The biggest hurdle may be bridging the comprehension gap. “Very few people can make use of the quality data that is out there because it is written from a provider or regulator point of view,” says Mark P. Herzog, President and CEO of Holy Family Memorial in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. “It just doesn’t resonate with the average citizen.”
Alan Sager, Boston University Professor of health law, policy and management, goes even further: “Asking patients to become informed about price and quality, and make decisions about diagnosis and treatment in light of information about price and quality [is] largely a waste of time.”
Aware vs. informed
But there’s a difference between asking patients to become informed, and simply making patients aware. When South Nassau Communities Hospital, in Oceanside, New York, began losing business to lower-priced outpatient centers, it initiated a relatively small publicity campaign—starting with a small investment in Facebook—that would pay off handsomely later.
Having secured more than 6,500 Facebook “likes,” South Nassau had an easy-to-reach audience for its new emergency care center five miles away from the hospital. Expanding its advertising efforts to various other media outlets, the center quickly doubled its patient volume, and it continued to grow.
It’s also clear that once patients are in the door, there’s no substitute for customer satisfaction. Hospitals with the highest satisfaction scores tend to treat customer experience as an investment, says Deloitte. They may increase their costs, but they increase revenue even more.
Like big box stores, they can also make it easier for patients to handle their ever-increasing deductibles by offering payment plans. Not only do they improve their chances of eventually getting paid, they also appeal to patients who might otherwise avoid the care they need.
CareThrough’s navigators can help reach those patients. They specialize in, among other things, building relationships and connecting with at-risk patients to schedule appointments. And they make sure patients follow through with care plans and future appointments.
Customer satisfaction also correlates with the amount and quality of time patients get to spend with physicians, says author and physician Suneel Dhand. Certified medical scribes let physicians increase face time and decrease administrative-task time, providing a cost-effective way to dramatically increase the satisfaction of both parties.
Healthcare consumerism may never be the same as a trip to the local mall, but common sense and experience suggest that making the effort to treat patients more like consumers will pay off in the long run.