Don't Lose Patients by Thinking Like a Hospital: 3 Strategies for Competing in Retail-Driven Healthcare

Retail health clinics at CVS and Walgreens are continuing aggressive moves to capture primary and even specialty care business from traditional healthcare providers. While hospitals and health systems are recognizing a market shift, traditional providers need to upend their thinking about how healthcare decisions are made.

In doing so, they'll be better positioned to thrive when competing for consumer-driven healthcare business.   

Creating a more consumer-focused healthcare delivery model requires fundamental shifts in thinking. There are many ways retail clinics and forward-thinking healthcare providers have grown their business and strengthened patient loyalty in recent years.  The following three strategies highlight some of the more effective strategies by helping healthcare leaders shift from a hospital operations mindset to a market-focused way of thinking.

1. Look outside the healthcare category for best practices
It's easy for hospitals and health systems to fall into the trap of category thinking when developing strategies to reach patients. Looking just to other hospitals and health systems to inform best practices is limiting, and many of the more successful retail-driven businesses cross categories to identify new ways of engaging consumers. When CVS and Walgreens decided to expand their retail operations into healthcare delivery, they did not look to the conventional models of primary care delivery, but instead looked to businesses successfully meeting the needs of busy consumers.

Retail clinics looked first to fulfill a consumer need: more convenient and accessible primary care that can be an affordable alternative to ER visits. The retailers started by recognizing that certain primary care services are viewed as commodities, with convenience and access driving the decisions. Walgreens recognized that consumers are often anxious about wait times in physicians' offices, and took a page from the airline industry when deciding to post a patient's place in line. These rotating screens of names are similar to standby lists at airports, and can help decrease patient anxiety while increasing satisfaction.

As retail clinics now look to further expand in chronic and specialty care, healthcare providers that are able to look to other categories for paradigm-shifting behaviors, may find inspiring ways to engage consumers and build loyalty.

2. Repackage clinical information to solve the patient's problem
Hospitals are designed as operational command centers. That's what makes them so effective in triaging patients, managing infection rates and saving lives. In so many cases though, hospital communications mirror departmental structure. For example, patients researching medical weight loss options often need to wade through an online encyclopedia of surgery types before finding what they want.

An individual considering bariatric surgery is looking for solutions for a life-long struggle with obesity, and typically shop more than just a healthcare option. They will not have the patience for poorly organization information on a hospital website. One provider effectively packages information to meet consumers where they are is New York University's Langone Weight Management Program. NYU even created a consumer-centric web address in "" to position itself as a partner to consumers exploring weight loss surgery. For those who engage with NYU's Weight Management Program, they are guided through the complex decision process through a dedicated website and a very accessible team.  

Hospitals that can view the decision process from the consumer point of view and align communications along those lines are better positioned to win in clinical areas where consumer choice plays and increasing role.  

3. Engage patients when they're shopping for a healthcare partner
In high-involvement services industries, people are buying relationships as much as they buy the service. As in banking or real estate, healthcare is a complex decision, and as consumer choice grows, the emphasis placed on service delivery and the relationship with the care team also increases. Many health systems showcase only the medical training credentials of their physicians in communications, missing the opportunity to humanize the care team and highlight areas that matter just as much to consumers.  

Even in the world of big banking, JP Morgan Chase recognized that relationships between individual clients and bankers drive loyalty. They created the "Private Bank" sub brand to counter their large, impersonal image and build a more relational business with consumers. Consumer-driven areas of healthcare like sports medicine are great places to start overhauling how your care team is positioned. Athletes often express mistrust of healthcare providers, viewing physicians as adversaries who tell them what they can't do. NorthShore University HealthSystem in Illinois instead positioned its sports medicine physicians as individuals with an athlete's mindset, allowing them to be viewed as partners on the sidelines.

Connecting with consumers by adopting a consumer mindset is a strategic premise successful retailers have been using for decades. As retail clinics continue to expand healthcare services to consumers, they are engaging patients in ways many healthcare providers overlook. As more decisions move into consumers' hands and increasing levels of information is available to patients, it can be increasingly difficult to engage them. By shifting the thinking of your organization in how you reach and engage patients, you will be much better positioned to retain and grow your patient base in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Julia Brady is Principal of Perceptive Strategies, a brand and strategy consultancy for insights-driven growth. She has developed brand and go-to-market strategies for leading healthcare, education and consumer brands including NorthShore University HealthSystem, University of Cincinnati Health, Gatorade and Quaker Oatmeal.

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