Embrace and satisfy E-patients for success

Consumers are the "sleeping giant" in healthcare, but not for long, especially as new patient-centric technology and care settings evolve. As patients shift into the mindset of consumers, they aren't shy about seeking better services when they go through an unsatisfactory experience.

Providers who continue to follow the same old "treat and send home" strategies are likely to fall behind those who give this new breed of "e-patients" what they want: consumer-centric care that leverages technology to maximize efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

E-patients: Who are they, where did they come from, and what do they want?
E-patients have ascended from what I would call the rise of the three C's: consumerism, costs and chaos.

Consumerism. You can find various definitions of e-patients, but in my view, they are made up of "conscious consumers." They actively recognize and understand that companies respond to them and compete for their attention and business in certain ways—some that have evolved with development of the Internet. These responses, in turn, have set expectations in consumers on how to work with vendors of products and services.

As patients, these consumers see a significant disconnect between how they are treated by healthcare providers and how they are treated by other industries, such as retailers. For example, they see that a retailer can identify them as someone who has purchased from them before, and in response, can learn and anticipate their buying behaviors and respond accordingly.

Because consumers have those sorts of expectations, they can become disgruntled as an e-patient in healthcare because they see such a contrast between how one industry treats them versus how they're treated when it comes to their care. Patients often find themselves faced with a sort of "reset—" that is having to repeat information they've already discussed with their provider during a previous visit. This can cause frustration, and patients subconsciously start to get anxious that things relating to their care are falling through the cracks.

Rising costs. Another major factor in the emergence of e-patients—it's no secret that healthcare costs continue to increase. Many patients now have multi-thousand-dollar deductibles, where just 10 years ago it may have been $100. They're paying a lot more per month for insurance, but in many cases insurance does not immediately kick in because the deductible hasn't been met. As a result, it remains very high on the consumer's radar in terms of nondiscretionary spending, and it remains a source of patient anxiety.

Rising chaos. The chaos component relates to rising costs, but it also relates to issues like Obamacare, and the outright shutting down of the government over disagreements about things like the Affordable Care Act. I don't think 99 people out of 100 could tell you what Obamacare really is, but they see that there's so much chaos around healthcare that it increases their anxiety as a consumer of a service which is largely a nondiscretionary element of their lives.

When people, be they consumers or patients, respond to anxiety, they generally step up to try to control their fate. With respect to healthcare, it's causing people to realize that they're not just patients, but consumers, and they pay for services as such. An estimated 25 percent of a person's budget goes to healthcare costs per year, and these e-patients want greater control over that portion of their lives.

As a result, this e-patient movement has given voice to healthcare consumers who want providers that understand their histories without having to repeat themselves, and patients who want more control over their data and how it gets managed. Patients today have a way to go to the internet for something of a "second opinion" on what their clinical care should be. What you really have is a more astute consumer who is price sensitive and has the ability to self-educate to some degree.

Accommodating today's e-patients
Fortunately, there are several ways for providers to meet e-patients where they are and to meet their expectations.

First, know thy patients. Patients increasingly want and need to feel like you know them. Yes, providers are dealing with an ever-growing list of regulatory burdens, like having to electronically document care and having to implement measures to track quality of care. It's easy to get distracted from the human being sitting three feet across from you, but you can't let that happen. As a provider you need to recognize that your patients want to feel valued and that you know who they are.

Focus on improving patient experience. Your office environment and staff attitudes can enhance the relationship between you and your patients, or they can diminish it. Take, for example, pharmacy chains. The concept of "perceived quality," with respect to the flow that gets the customer from the parking lot to the pharmacy and back out again, is very important to them. A patient who has to stumble through untidy shelving or bad lighting on the way back to the pharmacy may still get the same bottle of pills, but their experience would be different than if everything were neat, well-lit and inviting.

Pharmacies are looking at the experience as a way to reinforce perception of the quality of service. In the same way, a good healthcare organization recognizes the value of "perceived quality;" the importance of such details like the waiting room layout. They recognize that the initial greeter becomes almost another "chief public relations officer." If she's grumpy and creates a bad experience for the patient at the outset, then that can set up a perceived bad visit with the physician.

Get the right care-coordination technology. Although they may have a good experience in your office, your patients still risk becoming dissatisfied after they leave. For instance, electronic prescriptions that aren't ready when they're supposed to be. Records that don't arrive on time at the office of the orthopedic surgeon to whom you referred the patient.

E-patients want to get the sense that you really are caring for them outside the office or other point of care. Make follow-up calls to see how they're doing, let them know you'll call them as soon as their lab results come in. These are some basic things you can do to reach out to your customers and show that you're mindful that they are in fact your consumer.

Another way to improve care coordination is through tools and technologies that help quickly and efficiently disseminate information between providers. These tools reinforce and reflect the fact that many of us use social networking and other online tools to share information and to emote with one another. That's one area in particular where even the most current patient portals fall short, in that they are very "one-on-one" experiences. No one would have a Facebook profile if they couldn't share it with their friends. If you can give patients the ability to share their data with another person, suddenly that friend or relative has the potential to become a more empowered caregiver. This is where emerging tools and technologies can bring healthcare up to the level of other industries, such as retail and banking, with respect to the experience they provide their consumers.

Embrace the e-patient movement for success
Healthcare providers must recognize that they truly are service providers, and they should seize the opportunity to learn from other successful healthcare service brands. Some organizations began recognizing many years ago that creating a brand and marketing it as "center of excellence" helped to make them more successful because they generate larger patient followings.

Everyone wants their healthcare problems taken care of; doctors are trained to do just that. But if you, as a provider, don't deliver that care in a way that recognizes your patient as a valued consumer, then you risk losing patients to the practice across town that does. E-patients, because they are more assertive as consumers, can serve as a patient population on which providers truly can test the performance of their brand and their service. Meeting the needs of these newer, informed, connected consumers of healthcare will help your practice compete at a high standard.

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