SHSMD: Health Care for the Digital Consumer – Our True North Star

This week, I attended the Society of Healthcare Strategy & Market Development Connections conference in Seattle. It’s the largest gathering of health system communications and marketing experts from around the country. Before the conference started, I identified three trends I hoped might be topics of conversation:

  • Strike the word patient. We’re all consumers
  • Crisis: It’s Just a Matter of Time
  • Rural Hospitals. Can they survive?

shsmd healthcare technology

The good news? Two of these three trends were significant parts of the conversation. There was quite a bit of conversation around rural hospitals – how they grow, where they place bets.

However, and perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest topic of conversation at this week’s gathering was around the consumer. I was pleased to learn that the consensus is: We must think of patients as consumers.

The presenters didn’t disappoint. Here are two of the biggest takeaways:

1. It’s not about the rise of the health care consumer. It’s about the rise of digital for every health care consumer.
Let’s start with stats: 92 percent of patients state that improving the consumer experience should be the top goal for digital health tools. 85 percent of patients expect digital tools to facilitate virtual care access. And, perhaps most telling, 90 percent of patients feel no obligation to stay with a provider who does not offer a satisfactory digital experience.[1]

Well, if that doesn’t get your attention, perhaps this stat will: according to a Q4 2017 Black Book survey, only nine percent of providers said they have the ability to offer all of the digital tools patients expect.

At this point, I’m sure you’re starting to see the challenge we face as health care communicators. To deliver on access, transparency, an improved customer experience–all things we’ve said are necessary to meet the demands of the new health care consumer–we must have the technology in place. Technology that matches the experiences digital consumers have in all parts of their lives each day. Technology is the foundation. Without it, we cannot meet the simple demand: health care delivered on “my” time.

2. Hospitals must be less hospital-centric.
When a hospital CEO stood up in front of a group and said, “hospitals have to become less hospital-centric,” I saw a few jaws drop. It was a bold statement yet spot on. There are a couple of things happening here.

First, patients are shifting from acute care to ambulatory care. They’re demanding retail, telemedicine and urgent care. The idea that the majority of millennials will seek out a primary care physician and build a long-term relationship is not reality. What this new model does offer are more frequent touch points of care, which results in healthier patients. During one panel, a medical director for a leading pharmaceutical brand said, in his days as a treating primary care physician, he may see a diabetes patient three times a year. In this retail, ambulatory model, the same patient is seen 40 to 60 times a year.

Second, competition is driving a shift to ambulatory care. Prominent pharmacies are beginning to forge partnerships with large health systems, pairing pharmaceutical skills and resources with the health system’s robust roster of physicians—tying in nicely to the health systems here—and there you go: a retail experience that draws patients in, generates revenue and keeps patients healthy.

Finally, employer groups are moving to higher deductible health plans. Employees have no choice but to seek out ambulatory solutions. They must find ways to keep their costs down. A telehealth conference for strep throat is cheaper and more convenient.

These three factors, and several more, mean health systems must get smarter. They must understand the data and understand where the ambulatory patient volume exists. And, as they learn from the data, they can’t create the same experience over-and-over. They’ll need to think differently based on the demographics, usage behaviors and needs of the community.

Spending three days with health care communicators is the highlight of my year! Our roles are more important than ever. If I took anything away from this week’s gathering, I would say that it’s our job to push ourselves, our teams and our leadership to keep the digital consumer as our north star. Because, as one conference presenter put it, despite all the disruption and change happening in health care, the consumer must win in the end.

Connect with me, and let’s discuss how we can help your health system place the digital consumer as its north star.

[1] Blackbook Consumer Survey, 2018.