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Four resolutions for health systems in 2018

2017 could have been a much more volatile year for our healthcare system.

A new administration pushed for sweeping changes. Major reform promised to completely restructure the industry. Organizations felt the whiplash as they watched the summer’s suspenseful policy debates, and attempted to prepare for the future.

However, these forces all came to something of an anticlimax. 2018’s healthcare policies will, for the most part, resemble 2017’s. But that doesn’t mean that the future is entirely certain.

Healthcare organizations can’t afford to get complacent. Washington’s dictates, technical innovations, and strategic business moves will make 2018 a dynamic year to be a part of healthcare in the United States.

To prosper amidst all the changes this year, here are four resolutions organizations should keep.

1) New players are coming for your market-share. Prepare for them.

The biggest healthcare headline toward the end of 2017 was the proposed merger between Aetna and CVS. It is still too early to foresee what this could mean for patients, but if the merger goes through, the changes could be significant. We’ve already discussed the startling surge of mini-clinic traffic in the last few years; if the merger goes through, this trend will surely accelerate, as Aetna funnels its patients to CVS’s Minute Clinics.

But that would just be the beginning. Some analysts believe that by forming a combination retailer, pharmacy benefits manager, and health plan—an industry first—CVS/Aetna are trying to curtail Amazon’s forays into the pharmaceutical industry.

Whether or not the analysts are correct, it’s important to remember why these nontraditional players have moved into the healthcare space. New entrants are bringing retail sensibilities to the health-services market, and that’s exactly what consumers have been asking for.

Traditional organizations should take a lesson from their new competition, and strive to offer an experience as streamlined as retail clinics offer. The better your organization does at removing barriers to care, simplifying processes, and curbing costs, the less you’ll have to fear from the mega-mergers.

2) Patient bills are soaring. Make it easier to pay them.

This bring us to the topic of costs.

In 2017, the burden of hospital bills continued to shift toward patients. High-deductible health plans and rising costs have left patients to put more of their own money into their care. For the first time, direct payments from patients accounted for 35% of provider revenue—the highest proportion in history. Patients rank behind only Medicare and Medicaid in the total volume of healthcare spending. For the average household, that’s an astonishing level of financial responsibility.

Consequently, patients will pay even closer attention to the value they get for their dollar. Their expectations will soar in step with their out-of-pocket costs. Organizations that fail to measure up will lose market-share as patients migrate to health systems that serve them better.

At the very least, health organizations should make paying bills much easier. In the course of settling up, any friction that patients encounter will sour them on their experience with your organization. So be as up-front about pricing as possible. Offer guidance as patients seek approval from payers, and a clear set of payment plans to help them meet their obligations.

3) Shed light on your work.

Dissatisfied patients migrate, in part, because they’ve been empowered to shop around for care. Thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier for them to evaluate providers and find one that meets their needs. It’s the Amazon effect, placed on the healthcare industry. Consumers are showing less and less tolerance for organizations that can’t provide the transparency they expect.

This trend started years ago, but health systems should expect it to accelerate in 2018. Patients will become even savvier at seeking out the providers they want, and they’ll reward organizations that make their choices easier. Ensure that your organization doesn’t fall behind, by offering transparency at every turn. Publish ratings and reviews on your website, and participate in online communities that discuss your health system’s efforts.

None of these efforts need feel punitive. The good news for the industry as a whole: light heals. Transparency spurs improvements within every aspect of care. Use the opportunity to celebrate what your hospital offers. You may be surprised to see how much your community celebrates you.

4) Use your data—before somebody else does

Patients want to know more about their providers. If healthcare systems won’t deliver the information they want, other players will step in to fill the gap. Start-ups and government agencies recognize the uptick in patient demand for data, and they’re rushing to supply information to aid their healthcare choices. Their work threatens to upend the brand stories that organizations want to tell about themselves; health systems need to take back control of the narrative.

What is the best way to diminish the threat from outside agencies? As mentioned above, your organization should publish its own patient feedback data. But you should redouble your efforts in gathering data, too. Your organization should move beyond the limitations of traditional survey instruments, and seek a broader, deeper understanding of your patients.

This authentic grasp of community needs will help your hospital position itself well in the market—whether that involves new service line development, more refined marketing messages, or strategic initiatives that bolster your organization’s profile.

Is your organization future-proof?

The lesson for 2018 is one we’ve seen time and time again: healthcare never stands still. The changing dynamics of the industry leave no room for providers that fail to innovate. Whatever the future holds, fortune favors the prepared. Following these resolutions is an excellent start.

And if your organization needs more clarity into its strategy for 2018, NRC Health can help. Arm your leadership with meaningful insights, and approach 2018 with confidence—and with a new commitment to service and innovation.