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COVID and consumerism: Insights from Dennis Pullin, CEO of Virtua Health

In the years before 2020, consumerism had been a powerful but incipient force in the healthcare industry. Its influence was continuously shaping how healthcare organizations worked, but at a pace that was, in retrospect, manageably gradual.

That all changed with the onset of COVID-19.

As NRC Health’s 2021 Consumer Trends Report makes clear, the pandemic became a potent accelerant for consumerism. Long-simmering trends and innovations suddenly burst to the forefront. Many leaders have, understandably, found themselves disoriented by the rapid pace of change.

Here to help us make sense of it all is Dennis Pullin, FACHE, President and CEO at Virtua Health. With an eye toward the revelatory data contained in NRC Health’s report, Pullin will here explore some of the most urgent consumer trends affecting the industry today—and how health-system leaders should respond to them.

The declining allure of the healthcare brand

First, Pullin observes how much more difficult it has become to secure the long-term loyalty of healthcare consumers.

“Trust is the key to a relationship with people in the community,” he says, “and that trust is difficult to earn.”

NRC Health data comports with this assessment. Surveys of consumers have found a steep decline in loyalty to specific healthcare brands, especially in the wake of the pandemic. 45% of surveyed consumers report that they have already changed their healthcare brand preference in the last year, and 62% expect their brand preferences to change permanently once the pandemic has ended.

Pullin believes this is happening for a variety of reasons. Today’s consumers are more empowered to choose their providers than ever before. Their expectations for care experiences have never been higher. And the pandemic has opened the field to non-traditional means of healthcare consumption.

All this raises the question: how should healthcare systems respond? What can they do to regain patient loyalty?

Drawing from his experience at Virtua, Pullin offers two recommendations:

  1. Make care convenient

“We know that the pandemic has accelerated the demand for access and convenience,” Pullin says. “Which is why we need to prioritize these aspects of consumerism as a focal part of our strategy.”

Indeed, according to NRC Health’s data, 52% of surveyed consumers say that convenience is their second-most important driver for healthcare brand choice (after insurance coverage).

In a word, what consumers want is ease. A few winning tactics—expanding care-site locations, broadening the scope for virtual-care appointments, and offering easy, online appointment settings—can make all the difference for a consumer’s sense of convenient access.

  1. Embrace a bigger vision

Increasingly, consumers are searching for a new model of care. They don’t want top-down, authoritative approaches to healthcare. They don’t just want to be “fixed” when they’re sick or injured.

Instead, they want partners who will unobtrusively assist them in preserving their well-being. Pullin believes that it’s essential for healthcare organizations to embrace that sense of partnership.

“At Virtua, we’re working hard not just to heal people, but also to support them along their full journey of health and wellness,” he says.

Offering fitness and nutrition advice, opening lines of communication about wellness issues, and honing healthcare messaging on social media can all be part of this wider approach to care.

But Pullin also offers a word of caution. “It’s very important to be both consistent and authentic with this,” he says. “You have to stay relevant to your consumers, and you have to be authentic with your brand, or this mode of outreach won’t be effective. Our patients know that their doctors and clinical teams have their best interests at heart, because we’ve created an environment that puts that relationship first, even outside of a facility.”

The problem of deferment

While declining brand loyalty is a vexing issue for healthcare organizations, the problem of care deferment is far more serious. Deferring necessary care is not just a dragging force on health-system profitability—it can also undermine patient well-being.

And, as might be expected, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the deferment problem worse.

“People have been very anxious and uncertain about seeking care during this time,” Pullin says.

In fact, according to NRC Health data, rates of deferment have hit an all-time high, with 29.4% of consumers reporting that they put off necessary care in 2020.

The pandemic is an obvious culprit for last year’s deferral spike. However, while NRC’s surveys have found that 40% of these care-delaying patients cited fears of the coronavirus, Pullin cautions leaders not to accept COVID-19’s contagiousness as the sole cause.

“The fact is, deferment is complex, and there are a lot of causes behind it, even now,” he says. “You have to remember what else is going on in patients’ lives right now.”

He cites the financial and social challenges arising from the pandemic. Historic levels of job loss have led to depressed incomes and a lack of insurance coverage. School cancellations have meant less free time to schedule medical appointments. Some older adults depend on family members to connect them with healthcare services—something that’s less tenable in the era of social distancing.

Therefore, to keep patients from deferring care, Pullin believes that organizations have to attack the issue on two fronts:

  1. Communication

NRC Health’s surveys have consistently found that local healthcare organizations are consumers’ most trusted sources of information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Pullin insists that healthcare leaders should mobilize that trust to bring patients back into the fold.

“We have to emphasize that social distancing never meant medical distancing,” he says. “That’s why we’ve made our experts available to the media to share information about the importance of continuing care.”

Pullin believes that organizations must continually communicate the importance of seeking care, as well as the specific safety measures they’re taking to keep patients safe from the virus.

“We have to reiterate these messages over and over again, so that patients can seek care with confidence,” he says.

  1. Alternative delivery modalities

This kind of persuasion is important. But it won’t solve the deferment problem by itself. Healthcare organizations must also resolve the practical obstacles that come between patients and their care.

That can mean using technological innovations to deliver care in a novel way. Virtua Health, for instance, has massively expanded its telehealth availability, and now offers an extensive array of patient-monitoring technologies.

Or it can mean making intelligent use of existing resources to provide more patients with access to care. Virtua’s chatbot-augmented care navigation center has not only improved patient throughput, but also reduced staff workloads.

Finally, Pullin says, “wherever possible, if patients are reluctant to see us, we strive to bring care to the people.”

Virtua’s network of mobile care units and at-home care staff has alleviated many care gaps that otherwise would have arisen from the virus.

The essential lesson of the pandemic

2020 was a year of upheaval for the healthcare industry. If you ask Pullin, organizations should not be too eager to seek a return to normal. Normal, he believes, may not be coming back.

“Many of the changes we’ve seen during the pandemic, I believe they’re here to stay,” he says. “In fact, I see them continuing to accelerate.”

For organizational leaders, this means one thing: if integrating consumerism was important to health-system strategy before, it is essential to it today. The COVID-19 pandemic has cemented consumerism’s place in the healthcare environment.

But Pullin is optimistic about the industry’s ability to adjust.

“I’m a big believer in the promise of what we can learn from the data,” he says, “and more to the point, in what we can learn from listening to our customers.”

That, he believes, is the bedrock lesson for thriving in the era of consumerism.