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Executive Brief 2019: What’s Next in Healthcare Consumerism

This article also appeared on Becker’s Hospital Review website.


Few healthcare executives would be surprised to see that improving the patient experience has been called “the next frontier in health tech.” It’s a frontier they’ve been exploring for years.

Health system leaders know better than anyone that consumers are demanding more from their providers. Patients don’t just want excellent care. They want excellent service, too, which means—among other things—care delivered with more ease, convenience, and choice.

To thrive under these consumerist pressures, organizations must continuously innovate. They can never relent in the pursuit of a perfected patient experience, nor can they stop uncovering the data to drive their decision-making.

But as we begin a new year, there’s value in pausing to take stock of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go. How are consumer demands changing? In what way is the patient-provider relationship evolving? And, going forward, how should health systems respond?

These questions and more are addressed in NRC Health’s 2019 Healthcare Consumer Trends below.

Healthcare sentiments

Leaders already know that they can’t take their patients’ goodwill for granted. In fact, consumer confidence in the healthcare industry has been on the wane for some time. To win that confidence back, organizations would do well to target those specific aspects of their operations that leave patients feeling unsatisfied.

Fortunately, NRC Health’s 2018 feedback data, based on natural language processing of over 1.4 million open-ended patient comments, points the way to some promising arenas for intervention.

Comments on clinicians—Mostly positive

For the most part, patients tend to gush about their clinical providers. Positive overall comments about providers outnumber negative ones by more than two to one. These comments reflect patient gratitude for the healing work provided by clinicians.

Further, patients also celebrate the human touch that doctors and nurses bring to their care: 87% of patient comments praise clinicians’ courtesy and respect, and 53% of comments reflect positive clinical-staff communications.

Despite this positivity, some patients take issue with the very first part of the provider-patient interaction: case histories. One in four of patient comments reported that doctors didn’t show enough knowledge of their prior health episodes. Only slightly more, 28%, reported that doctors were adequately informed.

Comments on process—Much more mixed

Where patients praise their physicians and nurses, they’re less likely to rave about broader service experiences.

For example, it will surprise no one to learn that patient comments about wait-times are predominantly negative. In fact, they’re the most frequently groused-about aspect of healthcare, with 77% of comments being negative.

The problems don’t stop in waiting rooms, however. Patients also feel less respected by the non-clinical staff they encounter: 67% of comments say that administrative and support staff did not treat patients with respect.

Part of this may reflect how patients perceive one significant segment of an organization’s support staff: billing and insurance. Over one third of comments complain about the billing and insurance process; just 26% of comments expressed satisfaction with it. (The remainder of comments were neutral.)

Brand relationships

Patients’ verdict on health systems, then, is split. On the one hand, they can’t say enough about their providers, and most feel well-treated by the clinicians who care for them. On the other hand, their encounters with the broader care experience—support staff, waiting rooms, billing—leave a little to be desired.

An urgent question for healthcare leaders is: on balance, how does this affect consumers’ relationships with healthcare brands? A 2018 study from NRC Health’s Market Insights surveyed 223,610 healthcare consumers to find out.

The study’s headline finding is how consumers characterize their relationships with their healthcare providers: 16.2% of consumers prefer to keep healthcare brands at arms’ length, calling the relationship an “acquaintanceship.”

A further 15.1% of consumers have similarly mixed-to-negative feelings, labelling their relationship with healthcare brands as “Love/Hate,” “Aversion/Hostility,” “Enslavement,” or, perhaps most tellingly, a “Marriage of Convenience.”

This last descriptor is all-important, because the one immutable fact of healthcare consumption appears to be that convenience is king.

The Market Insights study found that 51.3% of consumers think convenient, easy access to care is the most important factor in their decision-making. Convenience matters more than brand reputation (39.8%), more than quality of care (34.6%), more than the interpersonal conduct of doctors and nurses (44.2%), and even more than insurance coverage (46.4%). In fact, 80% of patients say that they select providers based on convenience factors alone.

Still to come…

To many leaders, this might all sound discouraging. The trends above underscore how quality of care is necessary—but not sufficient—to secure the loyalty of customers.

If they want to advance the patient-provider relationship past mere acquaintanceship, health systems will have to work harder to deliver a holistic experience that meets modern consumer expectations.

The good news is, a deeper look into patient feedback and survey data suggests some compelling answers. NRC Health will offer these up in a larger report to come: The 2019 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report. In it, leaders will find:

  • More specifics on all of the trends explored above
  • Consumer behaviors that reveal opportunities for intervention
  • Specific brands that are triumphing in the age of consumerism—and the tactics they use to do it
  • Predictions from esteemed executives about what’s coming in 2019—and what healthcare leaders can do today to prepare

Click HERE to read the report