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Consumer Trends Report: To remove friction from the encounter, you must understand your customers first.

For consumers trying to decide on a provider, quality care is no longer a differentiator. NRC Health’s research has found that 85% of healthcare customers report high levels of satisfaction with their clinicians.

In a field so crowded with high performers, how can provider organizations distinguish themselves?

Brian Curtiss, system marketing director at Bay Care Health System in central Florida, has a few ideas.

“High-quality clinical care is important, yes. But it’s presumed. It’s the minimum,” Brian says. “Earning a position in the marketplace today is less about clinical delivery, than it is about how we serve people.”

Data from NRC Health’s 2020 Consumer Trends Report—a comprehensive survey of healthcare-customer preferences, drawing from over two million patient comments and more than 300,000 Market Insights responses—seems to support Brian’s conclusion.

Here’s what Brian sees in the data, and what it means for health systems hoping to attract and retain loyal customers.

The problem of friction

While Brian marvels at the medical advances of the last half century, he also notes that patients often struggle to access them.

“At every conceivable point in healthcare, there’s so much friction,” he says. “Customers have a terrible time navigating the system. There’s no other industry with this much confusion and difficulty at the point of the transaction.”

NRC Health’s data comports with this assessment. Previous NRC Health studies have found that nearly half of healthcare customers have some frustration with their current providers. This year’s trends study observed that more than 60% of patients’ comments raised issues related to ancillary parts of the care experience—like check-in, wait-times, or appointment availability—that point to non-clinical points of friction during their encounters.

These trends make it clear: healthcare customers are growing increasingly intolerant of the obstacles to care that they must navigate.

Friction is in the eye of the beholder

The pathway to a solution may seem obvious. As Brian puts it, “if you create a frictionless experience, you make customers happy.”

An issue arises, though, when leaders attempt to isolate these pain points for intervention. Friction is not a uniform phenomenon. Every patient perceives it differently—and they may not all agree on the best solution.

This is especially clear when we consider patients from different generational cohorts. Age groups disagree about which parts of the care experience are most problematic, and which solutions are most appropriate.

According to NRC Health’s data, for instance, 65% of Millennials and Generation Z patient comments about billing were negative, while 63% of Baby Boomers’ comments on billing were positive. Likewise, 75% of Baby Boomers’ comments about appointment scheduling were positive, while only 50% of Millennial and Generation Z comments were.

More discrepancies arise about the best way to fix various friction points. Digitally native younger patients are much more amenable to digital solutions: 61% of Millennial and Generation Z patients, in fact, would switch providers over a subpar digital experience.

By contrast, only 4% of older adults have ever used digital clinical services, and over 80% of them express misgivings about doing so.

Not (only) about age

At first, it may seem like these differences stem from the differing age blocs within the patient population. But on this point, Brian urges some caution. These disagreements might track along generational divides—but that doesn’t mean healthcare consumers’ priorities are defined by their age. It’s a little more nuanced than that.

“You can’t just chalk up these differences to generational identities,” Brian says. “So much of it has to do with the particulars of each customer’s life situation.”

Baby Boomers easing into their retirement years, for example, may register fewer complaints about billing because they’ve recently enrolled in Medicare. Generation X consumers, on the other hand, have just hit the peak of their professional responsibilities, and have never been more pressed for time. Millennials, meanwhile, are having children, and members of Generation Z have just begun to enter the workforce.

“These groups want different things not  because of their ages, but because their lives are so different,” Brian says.

Removing friction, then, must start with a keen understanding of the broader situation of the consumer’s life. Only then can health systems intervene for the better.

What understanding looks like

This, of course, is easier said than done. How can health systems perceive the full picture of their patients’ lives, and tactfully offer assistance at just the right moment?

Fortunately, many major health systems have a department that already achieves this feat of empathy.

“I’d encourage leadership to play close attention to what OB is up to,” Brian says.

Because they’re on a predictable clinical track, expectant mothers get some of the best and most thorough attention a hospital can offer. The lead up to labor and delivery is, for the most part, well-understood and well-telegraphed for the patient. This minimizes confusion about next steps, and reduces friction to a minimum.

“We give mothers an extremely concrete idea of what to expect, and that alone takes care of a lot of the confusion and friction that many patients experience,” Brian says. “We can extrapolate that out to other clinical processes, too. Elective surgeries. Physical therapy. Chronic conditions. We can breadcrumb those processes out, so that the patient never feels lost.”

At Bay Care, Brian and his team pioneered a program—the Bay Care Easy Pass—that helps patients perceive where they are in the care process. Enrolled patients receive low-touch reminders about appointments, guidance on navigating common clinical and insurance issues, and rewards for engagement with Bay Care’s digital services.

“We saw some remarkable behavior change from Easy Pass,” Brian says. “Instead of using the ER or inpatient hospital care, these patients started gravitating to primary care and specialty care. It was much better for them and for us.”

What makes this all work

The lynchpin for success in such a program? Effective follow-up. Brian and his team had to think carefully about both when a health system should reach out to patients, and how.

The data suggests that organizations should reach out sooner, rather than later.

This is especially the case in the event of a service problem. According to NRC Health’s data, 74.8% of healthcare customers want to hear from hospitals within one week of a mistake in service. After two weeks, 66.2% of them consider the problem irreparable.

Even without any service issues, however, many customers look for a guiding hand from their providers. A majority of customers, across all generations—70% in the case of Millennials and Generation Z patients—leave the hospital feeling dissatisfied with how the hospital handled discharge, confused about next steps, and adrift in their medical decision-making.

These statistics underscore how a healthcare experience can be defined by what happens after the encounter, as well as during it.

How these post-encounter interactions should look, though, will depend entirely on the patient.

Where it all begins

Hence, the importance of understanding who these patients are.

That’s what NRC Health’s 2020 Consumer Trends Report is dedicated to uncovering. The full report is available now, and it offers more insights into the identity of today’s healthcare consumer.

Inside, you’ll find:

  • Which access issues are the most urgent for organizations to address
  • Which aspects of the care experience leave customers most satisfied (and least satisfied)
  • What customers say are the most important non-clinical experiences for their provider decision-making
  • And more!

To hear what your customers are saying, read the full report—available here.