Consumerism in the era of patient engagement: How top healthcare organizations stand out as patient favorites

Despite the fact that healthcare is perhaps one of the most human-centric industries, the healthcare industry is late to adopt a consumer-centered business model.

Now it's time to catch up.

According to research from McKinsey & Company, the most important quality consumers seek in both healthcare and non-healthcare companies is "great customer service" (indicated by the majority respondents). In healthcare, this not only means patients receive the safest and highest quality of care, but the coordination and continuity of that care must also meet heightened standards. The patient experience is not solely defined by one episode of care inside the hospital or one appointment with a physician. Rather, patients now expect communication and access to providers in a way that is convenient for them, even after they leave the care setting.

There are more resources available today to cross-compare medical providers than even a year ago. In this consumer-driven era, prospective patients are taking more control and responsibility for their healthcare decisions and costs. On top of an exceptional patient experience, consumers seek three additional elements when shopping for care: convenience, transparency and value. As a result, they are less concerned with traditional notions of patient loyalty and more open to seeking care from providers who can meet those needs. According to McKinsey & Company's survey results, more than 80 percent of respondents are aware of pharmacies and retail clinics offering healthcare services, and about two-thirds said they are willing to receive care in such facilities.

In addition to researching which providers will offer them the greatest value, consumers are also approaching their care teams armed with their own research on medical conditions. The concept of "self-diagnosis" is largely a product of consumers' growing desire to take more control and responsibility of their healthcare. But is this a positive thing? Though it may seem counterintuitive, many healthcare professionals believe the answer is yes.

At Becker's Hospital Review's 4th Annual CEO+CFO/CIO Roundtable in Chicago, Peter Doerner, executive vice president and chief development officer of North American Partners in Anesthesia, led a discussion with some of the nation's top healthcare leaders to address the fundamental attributes of an exceptional patient experience and how to leverage these traits to stay competitive in a consumer-driven healthcare era.

Peter Doerner: In your organizations, how do your teams manage patients who are influenced by information they find online? How are you dealing with this new phenomenon of "self-diagnosis?"

Paul Stewart, President & CEO of Sky Lakes Medical Center (Klamath Falls, Ore.): I think many of us who have been in healthcare for many years have approached this "epidemic" of self-diagnosis as something that is negative, but we actually try to encourage our patients to do that level of research and come in armed with information. We want them to be engaged in the process, not just passive participants in their healthcare experience. Clearly, there are dilemmas ensuring the quality of information available online. We also try to use our patient portal to steer people toward reliable sources of information, but patients know their bodies better than anyone else. They come in and speak with their provider from a knowledgeable standpoint of what they think is going on, which helps the provider arrive at a conclusion in the end.

Linde Finsrud Wilson, Healthcare Services Executive at LEK Consulting: I'm not a clinician, but I also hear from many providers that this epidemic of self-diagnosis is actually a very positive thing for a variety of reasons. First of all, from a safety perspective, and secondly, most clinics have these long sheets where you check all of the conditions you've had in your life, and your family's medical history. Very often, people just skim through those. In the process of self-diagnosis, something may come up where a patient will say, "My mother had X, Y and Z." I think it really is a positive thing because it treats the patient like part of the team, rather than merely the recipient of information.

Mr. Doerner: After the patient encounter, how do you stay connected so you can be their No. 1 choice for healthcare for life?

Rene Suntay, CFO of Meadville (Pa.) Medical Center: We've formed what we call a Community Care Network, which has added costs but saves us money downstream. At discharge, we have a team that includes social workers and health coaches that actually meet with [higher risk] patients. These counselors go through a discharge summary with the patients, which includes when a patient needs to see their primary care physician. We also provide patients with computerized medical pill boxes. Those pills are prepackaged through a contract with Walgreens and CVS. We time everything — if a patient doesn't take their medications at a certain time, an alarm goes off at our facility and we directly send a health coach out there to make sure everything is fine. The goal of this is really to eliminate readmissions.

Christopher Mosley, Former Executive Vice President & COO of Grady Health System (Atlanta): Probably one of the most impactful things we did at Grady was implement post-visit phone calls. Of 28,000 discharges, every patient gets a phone call from a nurse within 24 hours of discharge. We've found this saves lives. One patient was having symptoms of a stroke, and a nurse was able to pick up on that over the phone. She got the patient back into the hospital and ultimately saved his life.

The idea of consumerism among patients is here to stay, and I also believe the culture of an organization has to be transformed. If we're being truthful, we have to acknowledge the fact that some physicians need to be educated on the concept that patients have rights. For instance, we had a clinic with a system in place that called patients numbers instead of by their names. We had to have a conversation with our physicians there to explain a numbering system isn't patient-centric. They did have a great reason for doing it, but they were also willing to change.

Mr. Doerner: Out of 300 million American consumers, soon there will be 60 million people considered part of Generation Z — those born in 1995 or after. How are you planning to attract and communicate with this next generation of healthcare consumers? How do you ensure their loyalty?

Ian Stewart, Vice President of Systems, Finance & Operations at Advocate Medical Group (Libertyville, Ill.): With the proper technology, when you search for [a medical condition] online, you get a little popup box that says, "Need a visit?" or "Need a doctor?" Then the consumer can click on it. We do that today. If you have a large enough delivery system, or if you have clinics near consumers who are searching online, you can get them a visit relatively quickly.

Most of them want to make an appointment without talking to a human being. Use your technology companies to make those popup boxes work for you — get consumers to your appointment sites and let them see one of your physicians. Then you're taking someone who is self-diagnosing and allowing him or her to see a physician who can actually assess the situation. You don't need to send the consumer a text and follow up — they're searching for you already. They don't have to actually engage with you, which I think is the key point with this generation. They want it to be quick and easy.

Chandler Ralph, President & CEO of Adirondack Health (Saranac Lake, N.Y.): We put our quality scores on social media. You can go to our website and click on the cost of your procedure. We also have a calculator for patients with high deductibles.

But here's what I think is really true: Kindness, caring and compassion is not reserved to any one generation. So no matter how fast you get them into the system, if you don't have that fundamental value in your organization, they won't come back. That's all generations. You have to train the staff on how they interact with patients. We have a saying, "If you're grumpy, we really don't want you working in our organization." We have had employees that we've had to let go because they just can't relate to patients at all and we can't afford to have that kind of person in our organization.

Sean O'Grady, CEO of Glenbrook Hospital (Glenview, Ill.): Generation Z doesn't want to be tied down to anything. They don't care about having a relationship with a health system — they want to come and go on their terms. That means the electronic platform is critical. That demand for immediacy is something different than what we grew up with.  

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