Times of Change, Times of Choice: Purchasing Healthcare Services.

The term “consumer” has always meant “end user.” However, over the last 25 years, because they have so much choice, consumers have assumed the seat of power in the marketplace. And because they have access to choice, they have changed traditional buy-sell models. The same is becoming true for consumers purchase healthcare services. Healthcare has been well behind the levels marketing practiced in other business categories, and has been driven by sales, product and operations, employing messages that are logical, rational...and miss the opportunity to establish differentiated brands and messages. However, adopting consumer marketing approaches doesn’t mean that healthcare offerings will be presented as lifestyle brands. It does mean that healthcare organizations must recognize that  consumers have options and will shop before buying. The availability of purchasing choice has implications for both consumers (we prefer not to call them patients), as well as care providers. For consumers, change is shaped by:

  • Increased costs. The rising cost of care is driving a more accurate understanding treatments (and prevention) and their costs, as well as for care & provider alternatives.
  • Increased expectation for sensitivity to unique needs. Patients want to feel they are being heard by doctors and to perceive that they are being diagnosed accurately and treated for their specific needs.
    • Take for example the Cleveland Clinic story of a medical student who informed CEO Delos Cosgrove that when her father needed mitral valve surgery, they chose another hospital other than Cleveland Clinic, because they had heard that the hospital lacked empathy. Cosgrove took this and other insights "to heart," and established the Cleveland Clinic Office of Patient Experience moving from a doctor-centered organization to a patient-centered model with 26 institutes, support centers, and training for its 43,000 caregivers to focus on empathy, engagement and service behaviors.
  • Increased participation in understanding the illness, wellness opportunity and treatment approach. Patients are undertaking their own research, taking an active role in the diagnosis and selection of treatments. They are becoming active in their care, willing to practice wellness and preventative behaviors.
  • Along with active participation, patients are discovering a wider range of treatment options. This includes more integrative approaches, nontraditional medicine, diet and increased activity levels.

Where it's headed: Add all of these economic trends and increased expectations together and you get consumers SHOPPING for services, outfitting their lives and lifestyles as they do with everything else they buy, as empowered purchases with CHOICES. For care providers and payers, choice-driven change is shaped by:

  • The need to drive down costs. Acute care centers, the emergency room and hospitals are the highest-cost way to deliver care. Providers may also absorb the costs of the un- or under-insured and medicare patients unable to pay for services. Immediate care, doctors offices, walk-in clinics, telemedicine, and preventative care represent the lowest cost care delivery channels. Avoiding illness has the greatest ROI in healthcare.
  • Competition with other systems. Consumers will return to, and also refer others to providers who delivered a great care experience, from attentiveness to convenient hours, locations, parking and appointment setting.
  • Competitive differentiation. The combination of cost and competitive pressures will lead providers and payers to behave like businesses in many other industries, offering such things as: “value-added services” at low or no cost, while focusing on what makes their high-margin services different form others. Value-added might include wellness support, while the core differentiated services might be specialty treatments or unique approaches to patient care.

Where it's headed: It’s becoming more important for care providers and payers to adapt to change if they are to remain competitive. They can either win more of the high-margin market, or focus on and develop ways to specialize in serving challenging niche markets like low income segments. Here are some of the actions they can take, to revamp their offerings to win a larger share of the choice-enabled market. Notice the similarities with consumer marketing, and too, that these are not limited to or separate from  the marketing function:

  • Raise your voice: consistently invest in marketing strategy, positioning and ongoing programs
  • Think beyond paid advertising: inbound marketing, content marketing and social media interaction are some of the emerging options
  • Connect with local communities
  • Develop useful, rich content such as this post by SeniorHomes.com on Disease Prention 
  • Communicate transparently about policy
  • Acknowledge that people have choices
  • Provide transparent pricing
  • Support  consumers’ long-term goals—wellness, not just the the care solution
  • Increase the appeal: “merchandise” the offerings
  • Increase service friendliness: ease of access
  • Align patient experience (operations) with the marketing message
  • Link marketing direction with organization mission (leadership)
  • Educate
  • Use media that people use: video, web content
  • Use channels that people use: mobile, social media & reviews
  • Publish
  • Connect the disciplines: PR, Social media, website content, expert content
  • Use marketing to listen
  • Use marketing to converse
  • Understand that culture is where the brand starts, and that marketing is the careful integration of how & what a healthcare organization does, with how & what it communicates.