Building loyalty into the patient experience

Healthcare organizations are experiencing lower levels of trust by patients, partly as a result of misaligned communications during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many healthcare leaders see the critical, timely need to regain that trust.

During a July Becker's Hospital Review podcast sponsored by NRC Health, John Berg, marketing director and assistant vice president of UF Health in Florida, and Ryan Donohue, strategic advisor at NRC Health, discussed effective approaches for healthcare organizations to restore trust and loyalty with patients.

Four key insights were:

  1. With COVID-19 receding, health systems need to reestablish trust and loyalty with patients. During the pandemic, healthcare organizations focused mainly on pandemic messaging, while pulling back on investments in marketing. This led to a loss of differentiation in patients' minds. "The result for a period of time was that perceptions flattened . . . and that had an impact of a lack of trust," John Berg said.

    "We're calling it the brand blur," Ryan Donohue said. "In 2023, consumers are saying, 'Who are you again? We've all been through a lot and need a fresh start and you need to start from zero with me.'" Still, Mr. Donohue noted there is a mismatch between healthcare executives' belief that patients' trust in their organizations is entirely gone and the relatively neutral outlook of most consumers regarding healthcare quality by local providers.

  1. Recalibrating how health systems talk to patients can go a long way toward restoring confidence. In an attempt to transmit authority and calm during the pandemic, UF Health adopted a brand voice that aimed to resemble that of a "kind doctor." This approach ended up being a flop, Mr. Berg said, because the organization did not accompany that communication style with community events. "Our message wasn't resonating because people didn't want an authoritative voice — they wanted someone to listen to them and sympathize with them."

    One lesson that can be gleaned from UF Health's experience is that many health systems built their marketing and branding guidelines well before the pandemic and now need to update how they engage with local communities.

  1. Rebuilding trust and loyalty has real downstream effects for patients that affect care delivery and health outcomes. Reintroducing themselves to patients is important for health systems not just from a marketing perspective, but also from the perspective of countering people's tendency to postpone care when they feel distrustful or disengaged. "When people don't feel engaged, it can make a big impact on someone second-guessing if they should come in for care or miss their medical appointment or just defer care," Mr. Donohue said.

    Improving the patient experience is another way for providers to regain trust with consumers. That includes paying close attention to the patient journey and working to improve each step of the journey. Improving trust also means encouraging patients to leave Google reviews after their encounter with the organization and even looking to patients as a North star who can signal new and innovative ways in which they wish to be engaged.

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