Patients as ‘Consumers’ and ‘Customers’: How Can Health Care Meet Their
Growing CX Demands?
Few, if any, industries have been untouched by the pandemic of 2020. The effects range from disruption to revolution to devastation. For a relative few, the effects have been positive, even rejuvenating.
But in the health care industry, the effects of the coronavirus run the gamut. While COVID-19 has pushed the health care delivery system and providers beyond their limits, in other ways, it has accelerated some positive trends that had already begun. Alternative delivery methods, including telemedicine, have taken off and will likely be permanent fixtures on the healthcare landscape. And all the while, what has traditionally been the patient experience has been evolving into a “customer experience.”
The pandemic has rapidly accelerated the “consumerization” of health care—patients behaving more like consumers in their healthcare interactions. In a white paper on key industry insights, Deloitte says the consumer has arrived in the healthcare industry sooner than expected. It’s having major impacts throughout the industry, including on the contact centers that interact with those consumers on behalf of healthcare organizations and providers. In fact, the patient-consumer is already here. How will health care meet their changing needs?
Consumers are speaking. Is health care listening?
It only makes sense that consumer expectations and demands that have been shaped by interactions in other sectors would now be applied to health care. Sure, they’re patients. But they’re also demanding that providers recognize them as “consumers” and “customers,” too. They expect convenience, communication, choice, and agency from an industry that, frankly, has historically held most of the cards.
Switching to a customer-centric mindset and practices is tricky business in health care, to somehow balance communication and transparency with patient privacy and adherence to HPAA and other regulations and laws. And how do consumers help shape an industry whose services and even lexicon they largely do not understand?
Technology will play an increasingly important role in this evolution. But so will the frequency and quality of human interactions. Considering that more often than not, many first (and ongoing) impressions are shaped by interactions with a contact center, these interactions need to be informative, responsive, convenient, compassionate, and always consistent with privacy regulations. No small order.
In Healthcare consumerism today: Accelerating the consumer experience, McKinsey & Co says that findings from its research, 2018 Consumer Health Insights (CHI) Survey are clear: Consumer engagement in health care continues to grow, but many payers and providers are struggling to meet these changing needs and demands. Digital tools can help address some of these issues—patients/consumers are increasingly open to them, especially from their primary care provider (PCP)—including telemedicine, appointment reminders, email/online communication, and electronic health records.
Consumers’ message to healthcare providers is loud and clear: “We expect convenience—and more.” Which means that health care needs to overhaul the way it thinks about patient/consumer interactions. Healthcare providers are now learning what other sectors have long known: Everything is about the patient experience. Especially as patients continue to pay higher out-of-pocket healthcare costs, they are looking for experiences that mirror those they have in other service sectors. Consumers are demanding healthcare experiences that are as frictionless as those in the hospitality, airline, or ecommerce industries.
There is some progress
There are signs of progress: Some provider groups, for example, are implementing technologies that make it easier for patients, or consumers, to shop for health care and interact with the system. Another example is price transparency tools, which lets patients know how much their health care will cost them before receiving it. Limited price transparency has long been a problem in the industry. Other developments continue to sprout. Patient navigation tools, call center technologies, online appointment scheduling, and digital bill pay/payment plans all support the notion that healthcare organizations are on the path toward consumer-centricity.
In its 2020 Survey of US Health Care Consumers, Deloitte found that the top factors for an “ideal health care experience” haven’t really changed since its 2016 survey of consumers: doctors who listen/care, doctors who don’t rush, and clear communication. As health systems, technology companies, and others roll out virtual services, the mandate is clear: Patients expect to receive the same level of personal experience as in an in-person visit.
Healthcare providers and organizations of all kinds, Deloitte says, need to recommit themselves to understanding consumers and creating multifaceted strategies that speak to where consumers are right now. This means deploying new tools and services, especially digital ones; ensuring data interoperability that will benefit consumers through the convenience of one-stop data access; investing in virtual health technology and training clinicians its use; and creating more access points to help improve drivers of health. And here’s a biggie: Health care providers, large and small, need to earn consumer trust through empathy, reliability, and transparency—attributes that consumers rank as essentially non-negotiable.
Not everybody wants patients driving CX
OK, but… there are also formidable challenges inherent in health care. John Quelch, M.D., professor of health policy and management, directs Customer-Driven Strategies for Health Care Professionals at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Health care is playing catch-up in terms of putting the customer first,” he says in 8 Challenges to Consumer-Driven Health Care. “In most industries it would be common parlance to say that the customer is our boss, but you don’t find too many doctors or hospital administrators taking that point of view.”
Quelch describes the other “consumer-centric” challenges health care faces in contrast to what consumers are experiencing in other industries. It’s a thought-provoking exercise. Among them: For consumers accustomed to making one-click Amazon purchases from smartphones, health care falls short. Improving customer-facing technology could improve health care results. Add that to the inaccessibility of health care data; the fact that health care is a “grudge purchase;” and also the fact that consumers can’t really judge healthcare services until they’ve already experienced them.
But at the crux of the challenges is this: “Most consumers…are used to being able to call up their broker or financial advisor at any time of day, within reason, to talk about what’s going on in the market,” Quelch says. “But you cannot call up your healthcare provider any time of day and talk about what’s happening with your health.”
“There’s this continuing rationing of communication time,” he says, “and the problem here is that the infrequency of interaction between the consumer and the provider results in the consumer not following through on what has been recommended. There has to be more frequency of contact for the consumer to be able to play their full role, [and] doing so will demand new ideas for staying in touch with customers.”
Can call centers bridge some of the gap?
Think about it: Consumers want convenience (and choice where possible) in their health care interactions. They want health care providers to harness the power of technology in interacting with them. They want experiences that put their needs at the center. And according to Professor Quelch (above), “There has to be more frequency of contact for the consumer to be able to play their full role, [and] doing so will demand new ideas for staying in touch with customers.”
Of course, no one wants or expects call centers to be dispensing medical advice. But there’s a lot of room between that and providing healthcare experiences that are supportive of the patient. Contact centers, many believe, are a great untapped resource for bridging these gaps and enriching patient experiences—much as they do in other industries.
The idea isn’t new—but is likely being explored more urgently with the accelerated “arrival” of the healthcare patient-consumer. Findings in one survey of 400 healthcare professionals indicated that call centers are beginning to fulfill growing and more diverse functions in healthcare organizations, delivering on both internal and patient communication needs. Between organizational consolidation and a focus on positive patient experiences and communications, call centers are coming to the forefront.
Contact centers improve access and satisfaction
In fact, the research finds that call centers are essential to patient care access and satisfaction. Call centers are no longer the “answer and transfer” sites in which patients would call and then be redirected to another hospital service line. Instead, call center operators are in charge of numerous tasks ranging from patient communications to relaying information to providers.
Other studies, including one of a central Florida health system , correlate patient satisfaction with contact center interactions—and specifically, with call center employees’ customer-oriented attitudes and behaviors. But for this organization, maintaining its contact center also presented ongoing challenges, including keeping up with evolving regulatory requirements. Even more problematic, the contact center employees were so well trained and so effective, other areas of the hospital were continually trying to hire them away!
It’s true that many healthcare call centers are still transitioning to contact centers. Many would definitely benefit from more automation—both in efficiency and the quality of the patient experience—and struggle to adapt to the whole concept of multichannel that allows patients to interact in their preferred mode – email, chat, text, and an expanding array of digital options –which increasingly drives the customer experience.
One problem is that healthcare administrators don’t always understand the impact the contact center has on the business and the kind of efficiencies and cost savings that are at their fingertips. Data shows that patients are more likely to keep appointments when reminded, and re-admissions are reduced significantly when patients get discharge information effectively. As patients’ facility with tech and expectations rise, healthcare contact center representatives need the right tools—and skills—especially when it comes to making omnichannel choices available. A nurse or agent that is excellent in providing care over the phone may not be a great communicator via chat or email.
Should health care be more like other sectors?
Healthcare contact centers face an overarching issue: How similar—or dissimilar—do they need to be from their counterparts in retail and other sectors? One key difference needs to be shifting focus from conventional KPIs – response time and abandon rate, for example—while not losing sight of the fact that these are still important. But newer, different metrics— Patient Satisfaction, First Contact Resolution and Level Zero Solvable— would likely better address how well a contact center is delivering a standardized—and satisfactory—patient experience.
In Beckers Hospital Review, Corporate Anthropologist Andrea Simon, PhD, writes that there are things hospital call centers can do to improve the patient experience and boost revenue. Among them: Adopt a multi-channel strategy and the technology to support it—because this is the way patients want to communicate. As consumers use smartphones and tablets for pretty much everything, their preferences are shifting to emails, texts, live chats, and messaging apps, even for healthcare-related interactions. Simon writes that once healthcare providers realize that “the call center should be the epicenter of both branding and building the business, the sooner many call centers will improve. …it’s abundantly clear that call centers are vitally important to the health of any business.”
For some, the future is here
Some health care organizations and providers have taken note and have already moved into the future. For example, some New York City providers use text message patient outreach to keep track of patients who cancel appointments, which has made a serious dent in patient no-show rates. Another multi-regional organization is tapping chatbot technology to supplement call center patient outreach and push out coronoavirus test results in near-real time. The future has arrived in health care, along with consumers who know what they want.
See how the CX cloud platform—intuitive, scalable and quickly deployable—is being adopted by front-line health care agencies and providers whose contact centers are playing a pivotal role now in the fight against the global pandemic – and will continue to far into the future.