Is Your Health System Prepared for Consumerism?

July 27, 2017
Many health system executive leaders see consumerism as a key to growth, and robust data and analytics will play a critical role.

While the terms “consumerism” and “patient engagement” are often used interchangeably, many thought leaders say the concepts are not the same, and strategies for engaging consumers are quite different from strategies to engage patients.

“Patient engagement is about connecting with pa­tients, so that we can influence them to be interested in and involved in their own care, and there’s ben­efits to us and them, such as increased compliance and maybe better communication that leads to bet­ter care for the patient. But, consumerism is such a huge topic and obviously it has an effect on patient engagement as well. If I, as a health system, have a relationship with the patient, then the kind of engage­ment that I can have is quite a bit different than trying to force a conversation on a patient that they are not interested in having,” Doug Thompson, senior direc­tor, research at the Washington, D.C.-based Advisory Board Company, says.

Effectively developing consumer insights and applying those insights to healthcare service design will require robust data and analytics, many healthcare thought leaders say, and that, in turn, will require the expertise and leadership of CIOs.

A Kaufman Hall report on the state of consumerism in healthcare, which was based on an online survey of more than 100 hospital and health system executives, found that 70 percent of leaders said consumer-related insights is an above-average priority, but less than one-quarter said they have advanced capabilities in place, referring to the capabil­ity to apply consumer insights to healthcare service design. And, those same leaders also reported that actions aren’t always integrated with organizational strategy. Only 10 percent said consumer­ism is a high priority with a number of advanced capa­bilities in place, but also said that there is a long way to go compared with other industries.

What’s more, the Kaufman Hall survey findings indi­cate that gaps exist in each of four critical elements of consumerism—patient experience, use of consumer in­sights, patient access and strategic pricing. For exam­ple, 79 percent of respondents said there is a pressing need to understand and enhance patient experience, but only 18 percent have employed advanced means to do so. Additionally, 68 percent of respondents said strategic consumer insights are a high priority but only 16 percent ranked themselves as having advanced ca­pabilities in that area. Further, only 29 percent of re­spondents consider strategic pricing a high priority, and only nine percent have advanced pricing strate­gies in place.

“The influence of consumerism cannot be underesti­mated in patient engagement strategies as the industry drives toward personalization,” Hal Wolf, director, infor­mation and digital health strategy at the Chicago-based The Chartis Group consulting firm, says, and further ex­plains, “Patients wear three hats: citizen, consumer and patient. The citizen has expectations of what a health system should be able to do, they have consumer ex­pectations of service based on other industries, and they have deep needs as a patient that they want solved. In the end, healthcare is a service and will judged as such, so all three hats need to be taken into consideration for the right patient engagement to meet the growing de­mands of today’s consumer.”

In that Kaufman Hall report, a key theme from emerg­ing healthcare leaders is that consumerism is not a pro­gram or a problem to be solved, but a key to growth. “Under value-based care, success requires ‘engaging the consumer…figuring out what they value,’ said one survey respondent,” the report authors wrote. In that same report, health system and hospital leaders iden­tified a number of barriers to action on consumer-re­lated insights, including resistance to change, lack of urgency, competing priorities, lack of clarity and lack of data and analytics.

What’s more, the survey respondents noted that capa­bilities to address consumerism require action in four key areas—organizational alignment, content (consumer-relat­ed data and research), capability (skills to develop and use consumer insights) and data/IT, according to the report.

The Advisory Board’s Thomp­son notes that most healthcare organizations do not currently have the right aligned mindset with consumerism. “You can’t make a cultural leap all in one step, even if the CEO wants to do it. I think education is part of it, trying to expose the lead­ers of the organization to some best practices.”

The Kaufman Hall research­ers, in their report, highlighted the steps taken by one unnamed health system to ad­dress the rise in consumerism in healthcare. The health system’s board established the priority of getting bet­ter consumer insights and the system launched two specific actions to gain additional data about patient behavior, expectations and attitudes—consumer focus groups to frame the business goals, and a 50-question local-market consumer survey. The survey responses, which provided insights into topics such as access, use of services, price sensitivity, health system preference and technology use, combined with demographic and utilization information, has allowed the health system to group local consumers into segments sharing similar characteristics related to healthcare attitudes and use of healthcare services, the report authors wrote. Those five consumer segments were “at-risk evaders,” “eager and engaged,” “unengaged utilizers,” “healthy hesitants,” and “price shoppers.”

Further, with the insights, the health system devel­oped segment-specific approaches. For example, for the “price shoppers” consumer segment, the health system delivered online messaging about affordable and convenient health system walk-in clinics, for the “engaged and eager,” the health system has begun de­veloping virtual visit offerings.

Consumer focus groups are a key place to start, Thompson says. “I think engaging with consumers in a much more direct way is a good thing, whether it’s focus groups or senior executives of the health system talk­ing to consumers rather than talking to their own busi­ness people. Or, even engaging in some guided creative thinking, because every health system executive is also a consumer of healthcare. All you have to do is get a health executive to set aside their day job hat and say, ‘What was it like the last time I went to the hospital or the doctor’s office or my family member did?’ Immedi­ately, every person understands these issues. It most ef­ficiently starts at the top of the organization with getting exposed to a lot of different best practices.”

Overall, Thompson says health system CIOs and other senior executive leaders need to think on a strategic level, rather than a tactical level, about consumerism. “Health systems are attacking this problem in too tacti­cal a fashion, such as, ‘We need to reduce readmissions, so what do we do for that?’ Now, you can text those patients or send them brochures, but you don’t have an overall relationship with the patient. If a consumer feels that I have a great relationship with a health system then that health system has much more of an influence on the consumer,” he says.