How to build loyalty and retain patients for your healthcare system

It’s not easy to win consumer loyalty for your healthcare system in 2018 and beyond. Build loyalty and retain patients by focusing on developing and implementing these core strategies for your system.

Patients are increasingly savvy and have elevated expectations, given the high bar set by online retailers. Nearly one in 10 patients (7 percent) say they will switch providers if service is poor, according to Accenture’s study, Patient Loyalty, It’s Up for Grabs. Most likely, that number is only going to increase as alternatives continue to proliferate. Take heart, though: while it’s not easy to earn patient loyalty these days, it IS possible.

Convenience is King

No surprise here: consumers want and need convenience, above all. In fact, nearly two thirds of patients would switch providers for the ability to get an appointment quickly when they need it, according to Accenture. Likewise, more than half would switch providers, if necessary, for the ability to get an appointment at a convenient location.

Patients are also willing to pay more for convenience. Half of them would pay more for weekend or after- hours appointments (though this is becoming increasingly commonplace to the point where consumers will not expect to pay more). One in five consumers would pay more for the ability to see a doctor virtually. These trends, of course, are partially driving new primary care models and the increasing adoption of telehealth.

According to Advisory Board’s article Patients or Consumers? Yes, even small conveniences in the hospital, such as easy access to discharge instructions or flexible meal times, can make a big difference. Convenience is a foundational, functional benefit that needs to be in place before deeper loyalty can be earned. Building in convenience should be a key part of your business and patient experience strategies.

Cultivate a Culture of Excellent Patient Experience and Customer Service

According to The Beryl Institute’s The State of Patient Experience 2017, 82 percent of healthcare organizations now have established patient experience efforts. Investments in these programs are increasing, as healthcare systems know they need to improve the experience to prevent patient attrition. Half of healthcare consumers say they would switch providers for great customer service, according to Accenture. That’s a lot of patients at risk if you offer an inferior service experience. Conversely, that’s a lot of patients you stand to gain, if you can excel in this area. Many healthcare systems still don’t think about how they provide “service” – and that needs to change.

Bridging the gap between clinical quality and service quality is key to building loyalty, according to Jake Poore of Integrated Loyalty Systems in his SHSMD webinar “From The Billboard to the Exam Room: How to Deliver on the Promise of Your Brand”. Poore asserts that operationalizing a culture built on truly connecting with patients as humans is critical. Similarly, the Advisory Board research suggests that what matters most to consumers in the care experience is personal attention. A fundamental human need of patients is simply to feel heard.

Improving the patient experience positively impacts not only patient satisfaction, but also patient outcomes and healthcare system margins. As The Beryl Institute report says: “A focus on experience is a primary and central means to achieve much, if not all, of what healthcare strives to achieve including clinical outcomes, financial results, consumer loyalty and community reputation.” Systems with average or below average patient experience are simply not going to be able to maintain customer loyalty in the future, risking substantial patient attrition.

Think Differently About Outcomes and Quality

“Outcomes” and “quality” may not mean what you think they mean; that is, when considered through the mind of healthcare consumer. As Advisory Board states: “Surprisingly, the outcomes consumers focus on aren’t all about clinical quality. Younger consumers (18-49) tend to value lower prices above other metrics, while older consumers (50+) focus more on conveniences like walk-in availability and short wait times. Don’t be afraid to lead with non-clinical value – consumers assume you’ve got great care outcomes.”

Furthermore, beyond price and convenience as functional aspects of quality, patients are focused on quality of life, over simply quality of care. Consumers are interested in achieving high quality of life even more than longevity, according to CEB Iconoculture research. Here’s an eye-opening fact: given a terminal prognosis with one year to live, 68 percent of consumers say they would choose to have no medical treatment and enjoy the time they have, rather than extend their life with diminished quality.
So many healthcare systems need to move beyond the standard organizationally-driven messaging to build patient engagement and loyalty. Understand and speak to quality from the consumer point of view, instead of solely the organizational mindset. Stop preaching solely quality of care, and focus on the patient’s quality of life. This presents a real opportunity to differentiate from most competition and engage patients in a more powerful way.

Provide Fuel for Consumer Empowerment

Overall, health is a growing value in our culture. Likewise, proactive healthy living is a growing lifestyle. An increasing number of us view being physically healthy and free from illness as one of our highest priorities, according to Iconoculture research. True wellness is the consumer’s aspiration. And wellness, in their eyes, is not equal to mere prevention.

Many consumers today are emotionally drained and feeling heightened levels of stress and anxiety. As a result, they are pursuing greater levels of self care and mindful management of their stress. They seek information and empowerment, and a sense of control and stability. They are seeking to allay rising healthcare anxieties by becoming their own advocates and self-taught experts. They are digging deeper to get to the root cause of their individual health challenges.

Iconoculture sums this up well: “Providers have an opportunity to leverage the appeal of “wellness” to activate health behavior. By meeting patients where they are at, health brands can earn status as a trusted advisor.”

To build greater brand loyalty, put fuel on patients’ passions for true health and wellness. That is, go beyond promoting service line care and even preventative care to engaging patients in programs and content about things that contribute to high quality of life – such as stress relief, self care, energy maintenance and digestive health. Fuel for empowerment can take many forms, building around what consumers are actually longing for. Anything from a brand campaign to a service line promotion and beyond can also be built through this consumer empowerment lens, and become more effective as a result.

These are just a few of the strategies health systems can develop to increase patient loyalty. Of course, the strategic priorities will differ from market to market and system to system. One thing that all have in common, though, is the need to follow the patient’s lead – and cater to their need.


<< Sue Spaight is the director of research and strategy at Core Creative, a branding agency that specializes in telling the life-changing stories for mid-market healthcare systems and the emerging med-tech world. >>

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