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2020 trends and 2021 predictions: Executive Q&A with Brian Wynne, Vice President, NRC Health

Published at beckershospitalreview.com

The preeminent healthcare headline of 2020 was, of course, the pandemic. But a deeper dive into consumer data reveals a much more nuanced, multifaceted story of the year—along with some important developing trends. In this Q&A, Brian Wynne, Vice President at NRC Health, explores what the data suggests for healthcare organizations’ near-term futures.

What does the data say about the strength of healthcare brands? 

I’ll relay the bad news first. Healthcare brand loyalty is, in fact, declining. The share of consumers reporting that their loyalty indifference to a single healthcare brand went from 31% in 2018 to 36% in 2020. More than two-thirds of healthcare customers would happily visit an independent practitioner with no particular brand affiliation at all.

COVID-19 has not made this situation any better. Since the pandemic began, 45% of customers have already changed their preference of healthcare brand, and 62% expect their brand preference to change, perhaps permanently, once the pandemic is over.

Those are disconcerting figures. However, leaders are not helpless to affect a change. The data suggests that consumer ambivalence is less about negative care experiences than about external marketplace factors.

For instance, among those consumers who express no particular brand preference, 21% say that they seek care based solely on recommendations from their PCPs, 16% say they seek care based on proximity, and 22% say they simply do not know enough about local health systems to make an informed choice.

This implies that leaders can positively impact brand loyalty by improving PCP outreach, expanding locations, and educating communities about their services.

You raise COVID-19 as a contributor to declining brand loyalty. How has it affected care consumption?

As you might imagine, the pandemic has dramatically curbed healthcare appointments. In April, May, and June of 2020, 30.4% of patients reported deferring necessary care. That’s the highest rate of deferral we at NRC have ever recorded.

There’s no mystery as to why. In the early phases of the pandemic, patients were rightly concerned for their safety, and they put off in-person appointments until we understood the virus a little better.

What’s a little more surprising is that, before the pandemic, rates of care deferral were actually declining. In January, February, and March of 2020, only 22.4% of patients were deferring care. Compare that to an average rate of 27.7% in 2019.

Why the decline? Our data has long shown that affordability, inconvenience, and a lack of pricing transparency were often to blame for patients putting off care. It may be that, in early 2020, providers were finally addressing some of these systemic causes of deferral. The challenge will be to continue that work, even after COVID-19 passes.

Telehealth was also a fixture of 2020. Will the trend continue?

The surge in telehealth utilization was startlingly fast. Though many might have predicted an increased use of virtual care in the era of social distancing, I’m not sure that anybody anticipated how quickly healthcare organizations would be able to roll out full-service telehealth platforms. In some cases, they did it all in a matter of weeks.

Our data shows that the proportion of consumers who engaged in a telehealth appointment nearly tripled in two years, from 7.8% in 2018 to 26.9% in 2020. What’s more, patients loved the new experience. Of the approximately 150,000 telehealth encounters we assessed, 92% left consumers with a positive impression.

This data tells us two things. First, healthcare organizations are capable of incredible agility when the incentives are right. And second, telehealth’s time has come.

However, whether the service has real staying power remains to be seen. While patients enjoyed their virtual care, our latest surveys show that only 27% of consumers who used telehealth intend to make it a fixture of their healthcare consumption.

All the same, a third of the market is a share that no organization can afford to neglect. Healthcare organizations should certainly put some serious thought into how to optimize their telehealth experiences.

What other digital innovations should providers focus on in 2021?

The pandemic has forced all of us to re-evaluate how we pursue human connection. While not quite as satisfying as in-person meetings, the collection of digital substitutes—video calls, messaging threads, and online meetups and classes—were powerfully sustaining during a period of widespread isolation. I, for one, am so grateful that we had these technologies available.

And I believe there’s a lesson here for healthcare organizations. Our data has long signaled that consumers are ready for a deeper connection with their healthcare providers. Digital technologies are an important way to make those connections possible.

Wearable tech, for instance, offers providers a way to more thoroughly participate in consumers’ wellness. NRC’s research has found that 36% of consumers currently own some kind of wearable health device, and that 57% of them want to share the device’s data with their healthcare providers.

However, fewer than half of providers ever ask about wearable tech–derived data. It’s a missed opportunity to get a broader perspective on patients’ well-being—and to discuss what’s on consumers’ minds.

Social media is also an important yet underutilized venue for connection with patients: 70% of consumers express an interest in getting healthcare information through social media, and 62% of consumers say that they trust the information they get from social media so long as it comes from healthcare providers.

Statistics like that should serve as reminders for healthcare leaders: consumers are extending an invitation to healthcare providers. They’re looking for partners they can trust—who will respect their autonomy, engage with their priorities, and develop a two-way relationship for the long haul.

Though these needs were eclipsed by the pandemic in 2020, leaders will do well to remember it in 2021 and beyond.