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Business as unusual: How customer obsession will help organizations thrive in an uncertain future

If nothing else, 2020 has been an object lesson in resilience. Even now, organizations across the country are engaged in a near-interminable fight against an unprecedented threat. Leaders can be forgiven for feeling a little fatigued from the barrage of bad news.

At this year’s NRC Health Symposium, Brian Wynne, NRC Health Vice President, struck a much-needed note of optimism.

His presentation frankly acknowledged the obstacles of the hour. But it also emphasized that nimble thinking, innovative leadership, and a relentless focus on the consumer will reveal the path forward—and leave health systems stronger than they were before.

Here are some highlights from his important message to healthcare leaders.

Our challenging times

Brian didn’t mince words. “2020 has turned the entire healthcare industry on its ear,” he said. The disruption has stemmed from three different sources: one unique to 2020, and others years in the making.

  1. COVID-19

Of course, much of the year’s obstacles arose from the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Healthcare workers faced not just the most physically dangerous phase of their careers, but also a near-catastrophic collapse in available resources.

“In March and April, it all seemed like science fiction,” Brian said. “Unfortunately, it was all too real.”

That health systems still managed to keep patients safe—and to keep the lights on—is nothing short of a marvel. Organization employees at every level, from executive leadership to non-clinical support staff, deserve commendation for keeping the U.S. health system intact.

  1. Non-traditional competitors

COVID-19 may have seized headlines. But a different kind of invasive species has long been seizing health-system market-share.

“We call them ‘invasive species’—the outside-industry players that want to eat your lunch,” Brian said. Such notable invaders include Walmart, Apple, and Haven – the Amazon, Berkshire-Hathaway, JP Morgan Chase joint venture.

Each of these outsider giants has devised some form of healthcare delivery. Their considerable expertise in consumer science and customer service has traditional leaders eyeing them with trepidation. Worse still, these competitors operate with near limitless resources.

Walmart best illustrates the point.

“We used to ask consumers, hypothetically, if they would go to Walmart for primary care,” Brian said. “Half of them said yes. And when we shared that fact with healthcare audiences, they used to laugh. But that scenario isn’t hypothetical anymore. The mean to create meaningful healthcare revenue streams from their already 150 million daily customers.”

Walmart, in fact, now has thirteen free-standing healthcare centers, with aggressive plans to expand to more than 20 by the end of 2020, and recently announced the launch of their first commercial health plan..

  1. Deferral and refusal

However, in the consumer’s field of options, another market option is perhaps more formidable than any brainchild of Jeff Bezos: forgoing care altogether.

In 2019, 28% of patients reported deferring necessary care—up from 22.1% in 2018. This is the highest rate of deferral since the financial crisis of 2008. During the months of April and June, deferment spiked as high as 80% in some parts of the country due to COVID-19.

Care deferral is, of course, profoundly unsettling for health-system leaders. Patients who put off healthcare experience deteriorating welfare, or even emergent health crises, which leaves them with conditions that are far more difficult (and expensive) to treat.

Perhaps the most startling effect of this deferment has been its impact on outpatient volumes. From 2018 to 2019, outpatient volumes declined from 880.5 million to 879.6 million. While an approximate 1% decline may not seem so outrageous, it is the first observed decline in 35 years.

The opportunity

It’s hard to see much cause for optimism amid all these grim facts. But Brian underscored the point that this is a crucial time for healthcare organizations to distinguish themselves. The crucial question is, how?

Brian pressed two primary points to consider.

  1. Quality care is no longer enough

“Good care is table stakes for healthcare consumers,” Brian said. “They expect it as a bare minimum from their providers.”

As long as patients recover safely from their ailments and injuries, their feelings about clinicians are likely to remain uniformly positive. This makes it hard for providers to distinguish themselves from the quality of their care alone.

What, then, should organizations do to stand out?

“The question on consumers’ minds is, is this health system listening enough, doing enough, to earn my returning business?” Brian said. “Going forward, health leaders should focus their strategies on making sure the answer is yes.”

  1. It’s all about access

While the overwhelming majority of patients have fond feelings for clinicians, the same cannot be said about the healthcare experience as a whole.

According to data parsed from patient comments (collected via NRC Health’s Real-time Feedback solution), more than 60% of patient comments mention factors of access and convenience.

Brian argued that this is precisely where organizations have the best opportunity to leave a good impression.

“The correlations are unbelievably strong,” he said. “If a patient leaves a positive comment about access, for example, they are 46 times more likely to be a promoter of the organization.”

The easier organizations can make access to their care, and the smoother an experience they can offer, the happier healthcare consumers will be.

Three final expert recommendations

First, on the matter of positioning. To effectively attract consumers, healthcare organizations must thoroughly understand their decision-making process.

This means gathering data from every touchpoint the consumer has with healthcare organizations, and using that data to inform strategic change.

Second, on creating access. Brian cautioned that no one-size-fits-all solution will do. Everyone wants ease—but consumers each perceive ease differently.

“A Millennial might be ecstatic to have a stand-alone app for appointment-setting,” Brian said. “But eighty-plus-year-olds might not.”

With that in mind, health systems must strive for individuated care, designed around observed consumer preferences and behaviors—which begins with a careful analysis of patient data.

Finally, Brian extolled the value of consistency. Every organization leader wants to see their health system thrive, but many of them scatter their attention over too many efforts.

As Brian puts it, “they chase two initiatives, and catch none.”

Better to derive singular, actionable points of focus from objectively observable patient data. A systematic reinforcement of the basics, and a committed focus to one over-arching goal, is more likely than a scattershot approach to rally an organization to success.

Much more to learn

2020’s Symposium was the first all-digital Symposium that NRC Health has held—but that didn’t detract at all from its substance. The foregoing is only a selection from Brian’s talk, which in turn only represented a fraction of the insights delivered at this year’s event.

Keep following this blog for more incisive and inspiring highlights from the event. And don’t miss the opportunity to register for next year’s in-person Symposium in Nashville!