The consumer imperative: Why now’s the time for better healthcare experiences.

Gerard was recently in a minor car accident. A few days later, he experiences headaches and dizziness. He’s concerned, but doesn’t know where to go. He tries logging into his patient portal but can’t remember the password (it’s been a long time since he logged in).

After several minutes, he’s able to recover his password, log in, and message his physician. A day passes with no response, so he tries scheduling an appointment online.

The provider website points him to the main phone number. He calls that number and after 10 minutes, four call transfers, and multiple requests for the same information, he finally has an appointment. Gerard is happy to be scheduled, but frustrated with the experience.

Healthcare has reached an inflection point.

Gerard’s story is a combination of many patient stories, but it is not unusual. Frustration with healthcare experiences has reached a tipping point among patients and caregivers, and also among clinicians who want to reduce the anxiety often associated with seeking and receiving care.

Clinicians have long recognized that the experience of care is essential to the healing process.

And while most patients love their doctors and nurses, as consumers, they’re left wondering why the seamless experiences they’ve come to expect with grocery stores, banks, travel, and other activities are often missing in healthcare. Challenges — such as time-consuming scheduling, long wait times, repetitive paperwork, confusing visit instructions, and lack of proactive communication — can lead to delayed care, poorer clinical outcomes, and reduced reliability of follow-up care.

Clinicians have long recognized that the experience of care is essential to the healing process. Hospitals have invested in single rooms and noise reduction technology. They’ve created beautiful, serene, and supportive environments. They’ve provided extensive training to personnel to improve the patient experience. And yet, many routine aspects of care are still hard to navigate.

As Gerard experienced, scheduling an appointment with the right clinician is often difficult and time-consuming. Patients wait on gurneys before being admitted to the ED, while others sit outside Radiology departments before being scanned. And there are many more examples.

Delays, friction-filled processes, and disjointed communication create anxiety and uncertainty, which, in turn, can impact the trajectory of patients’ healing. Performance improvement teams across the country are tackling these issues, but healthcare’s challenged with a fractured technology landscape that often exacerbates the situation, instead of helping to alleviate it.

Health systems are paying attention.

The good news is that health systems are more deeply focused on addressing these needs than ever before. Organizations are updating their mission and vision statements, aligning leadership incentives, and creating new patient-focused executive positions to drive a more comprehensive approach to improving customer experience.

Anyone can reserve flights, book hotel rooms, order groceries, track a pizza delivery, and even buy a car with the click of a button. Today’s consumers expect seamless, connected, and personalized experiences and often wonder why their healthcare experiences are falling short.

In addition, the healthcare industry as a whole is changing how it understands and measures customer experience. Many are moving from traditional functional customer experience metrics to actively engaging with more holistic NPS frameworks. Inherent in this approach, is a recognition that the fundamental business dynamics of competing for new customers, customer retention, and customer loyalty have changed. More fundamentally, they realize that caring holistically for patients’ mind, body, and spirit requires a simple and seamless experience.

So, what changed?

Challenges with healthcare customer experiences are not new. For years, patients have endured long wait-times, inefficient administrative processes, and complex billing practices. So, why is there a renewed emphasis on changing the customer dynamics in healthcare?

  • COVID-19.
    The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a society-wide concern about health. As millions contracted the disease and hundreds of thousands of people died in the United States alone, people became acutely aware of health systems’ importance. There was also a renewed focus on health risks, as well as challenges around finding care and reliable health information. As a result, health systems were compelled to change rapidly. They adopted new models of care and relied more heavily on technology like telehealth visits and virtual waiting rooms, proving that organizations could quickly undertake large-scale change to meet their customers’ needs.
  • Consumer expectations are high.
    Industries like retail, banking, travel, and hospitality have reshaped consumer’s expectations. Anyone can reserve flights, book hotel rooms, order groceries, track a pizza delivery, and even buy a car with the click of a button. Today’s consumers expect seamless, connected, and personalized experiences and often wonder why their healthcare experiences are falling short. In turn, healthcare systems are listening and creating new programs to focus on patients and caregivers as consumers who have a choice when it comes to meeting their healthcare and wellness needs.
  • Surging out-of-pocket costs.
    Consumer out-of-pocket healthcare costs have soared as insurance plans have shifted to high-deductible offerings. On top of that, millions lost their health insurance due to COVID-19 between March and September 2020, sometimes forcing them to choose between healthcare and other vital expenditures. As a result, new healthcare companies have emerged, focused more on the patient as consumer and reducing the cost and complexity of simple healthcare needs. These new entrants are driving disruption in healthcare, forcing traditional systems to rethink how they can remain competitive in a more consumer-driven market.
  • Competitive pressure to retain customers.
    It’s not just costs that are driving healthcare disruption. Over the last several years, new technologies have made it possible to increase the number of providers offering complex services. Meanwhile, private equity investments in competitive ambulatory surgery centers and other areas continue to draw profitable cases away from health systems. New urgent, primary, employer-based, and retail-based care models are also emerging as insurers and their partners entered the healthcare delivery business.

The era of the healthcare consumer.

We are now entering the era of the healthcare consumer. Better patient and caregiver experiences are no longer a nice-to-have, but an imperative for healthcare systems across the country. Competition for customers will continue to grow as new care paradigms and delivery systems emerge, offering greater choice and more streamlined experiences. As a result, customer retention will depend more than ever before on a combination of care quality and the experience of that care.

As with other industries, healthcare will need to think creatively about the needs of the consumer, examining operational best practices, implementing new more connected, consumer-focused technologies, and simplifying healthcare access. The consumer imperative is more than a trend, it’s an evolution and the time for change is now.