Consumerism — and why every community hospital should care about it

"Consumerism" is one of the hottest buzzwords in the healthcare industry right now, but also one of the most misunderstood. When most people hear the term, CVS, Walgreens and Wal-Mart often come to mind — retailers that have all invested in providing healthcare services either independently or through partnerships with providers. But these retail clinics alone do not define consumerism — they are a result of it. Consumerism is a strategy, not a place.

Healthcare consumerism is all about protecting and promoting the interests of the people who use healthcare services. It moves away from the industry's business-to-business approach to healthcare and instead seeks to engage directly with consumers in deep and relevant ways. This business-to-consumer approach is largely being driven by other industries that have adopted similar strategies (retail, banking and travel, for example), and with companies like Amazon gearing up to enter the healthcare marketplace, healthcare organizations of all sizes need to catch up fast.

Consumer strategies have roots in social science, which looks at the way people live their lives and interact with the things around them. People from different cultures, generations, countries, belief systems and lifestyles all react, think and do a little bit differently, and understanding what makes these groups tick is essential to connecting with them as a service provider. When community hospitals have a deep understanding of the needs and values of their consumer populations, they can strategically and empathically connect with them and chart a path toward a mutually beneficial relationship.

One strategy that is increasingly being employed to understand consumers is ethnographic research. The goal of ethnography is to unearth the "why" behind human behavior. Researchers immerse themselves in the world of a population, often following them through their day-to-day motions to deeply understand what matters to them most. With this research in tow, organizations are then able to develop more meaningful strategies, services, and environments that reflect the true needs of their consumers, as well as better reflect their own brands and missions.

As someone who works with healthcare organizations across the country, I realize consumerism may not seem like a top priority — especially in the midst of the many other challenges community hospitals face today. But as competition continues to intensify with lower-priced options and bigger health networks, community hospitals must evolve their approach to connecting with their patient populations — and understanding consumer behavior is a critical first step.

It is generally understood that most consumers want access, convenience, transparency and affordability when it comes to their health. With this, many overarching trends have arisen from research in recent years that begin to shift the way we view healthcare consumerism and its effect on community hospitals.

1. Loyalty. One concept that is beginning to gain traction in healthcare is emotional branding, which is the notion that successful brands are more about feelings than transactions. When consumers can see that a business reflects their social values, ethics and goals, they are more likely to become emotionally connected and support that business and be advocates for the brand. A great example is Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company widely respected for its environmental mission — so much so that it donated all its Black Friday sales from 2016 and 2017 to environmental charities. Hospitals can learn from Patagonia's purpose-driven approach to marketing by making their values reflective of the values of those they serve, and ensuring they permeate all facets of their organization — from marketing, branding and staff behavior to even the design of physical environments.

2. Information. This is no real surprise, but information continues to define the 21st century. Today's healthcare consumers are self-diagnosing on WebMD, getting second opinions on message boards, tracking their health with self-monitoring devices and reviewing Yelp reviews long before deciding where to go for healthcare services. To make a community hospital an anchor for your community, it is important to function as not only a service provider, but an information provider. In response, many healthcare organizations are identifying opportunities to provide easily accessible personal health data, physician profiles, virtual care options and opportunities for patient's to share feedback in real time. This may seem like a big ask for a community hospital, but consumers are accustomed to this level of information in nearly every part of their lives, and they expect it with healthcare, too.

3. Experience. "Experience" is another healthcare buzzword, but for very good reason — especially in markets with several hospitals competing for the same patient population. One of the best places to look for inspiration to improve the patient experience is outside the healthcare industry. Starbucks and Apple, for example, are often touted as gold standards in consumer experience because they have carefully orchestrated every consumer touchpoint. Increasingly, healthcare providers are also standing out from the rest by employing similar tactics. Kaiser Permanente, for example, recently launched a new MOB concept dubbed Health Hub that completely overhauls the patient experience — from the check-in process to the aesthetics of the waiting area to the way doctors and nurses interact with members and one another, to even what they wear. It is a radically new approach to healthcare that is directly aligned with consumer values and behaviors, and the outcomes Kaiser Permanente seeks.

Consumer trends will always vary slightly based on the target population, but that's the point. You must know your target population to build strategies that will engage them at all levels and create long-term partnerships and a solid referral system. Ensuring the healthcare consumer remains the core focus of your hospital's strategy is key to improving outcomes, saving costs, raising satisfaction levels and ensuring consumers keep coming back for more.

Abbie Clary is the director of CannonDesign's health practice. In 2017, CannonDesign was named one of the 10 most innovative architecture firms in the world by Fast Company.

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