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Frictionless service is the key to keeping patients. Here’s how to achieve it, according to two health-system leaders.

About the clinical encounter itself, healthcare customers have few complaints. According to NRC Health’s research, 85% of them report feeling satisfied with their clinicians.

But the data also shows that what customers go through before the encounter continues to be a source of consternation. Points of friction along the patient’s care journey, in fact, may be the single biggest impediment for organizations hoping to earn their customers’ loyalty.

How can health systems remove some of that friction? Jennifer McClean, VP of patient experience at Mercy Health, and Abhishek Dosi, CEO of Sutter Solano Medical Center, have some ideas.

Supported by data from NRC Health’s 2019–2020 Consumer Trends Report—a comprehensive survey of healthcare-customer preferences, drawing more than two million patient comments and over 300,000 Market Insights responses—they make the case for easing the patient’s path to care.

To attract and retain customers, start to think like them

Even for experts, the options posed by the healthcare marketplace can be confusing. For ordinary customers, they’re overwhelming. In light of that fact, Jennifer advocates for empathy.

“Think about the consumer, and the frustration they have with their limited choices in the marketplace,” she says. “Our job is to make those choices easier—to smooth the path for them to reach us.”

In the early phases of a care encounter, when a health need has just arisen, many customers face an array of difficult questions. What’s the appropriate provider for me? Will my insurance approve me to see them? What’s their availability—and can I take the time off work to make an appointment?

Jennifer argues—and NRC Health’s research confirms—that patients reward organizations that make it easier for them to answer those questions.

Improving digital discoverability, offering convenient digital service channels, and enabling self-scheduling are all proven tactics that ease the customer’s path to care. In fact, 51% of patients report that such conveniences are the most important factor driving their healthcare decisions.

Challenge assumptions about your performance

While these pre-encounter convenience factors are a significant driver of new patient conversions, what happens within the facility is what will win their loyalty.

This year’s Consumer Trends data shows that if a patient leaves a positive comment about admission or registration, they are 46 times more likely to be a long-term promoter for a healthcare brand, compared to patients who leave negative comments. Similarly, consumers with positive comments about wait times are 20 times more likely to be promoters than patients who leave negative ones.

Jennifer believes that all too often, organizations get too complacent about this crucial first-phase interaction with the customer.

“It’s easy for us, as providers, to have the self-perception that we’re really doing well,” she says, “but unless we look carefully [at the consumer’s experience], that confidence is misplaced.”

This why Abhishek also calls for rigorous attention to detail, in service of a better patient experience.

“You have to take a step back and really think about what a high-quality interaction is,” he says. “That will give you points to focus on, which then you can capture, measure, and eventually improve.”

Don’t miss the basics

In a sector as innovation-driven as healthcare, disruptive technologies or ambitious strategic overhauls can have a strong appeal for leaders. Contrasted with these, Abhishek’s advice may ring a little traditionalist.

“It’s not sexy or exciting to say that we have to focus on the basics of the interaction,” he says. “But it takes tremendous institutional will to really nail those basic steps of the customer interaction, day in and day out, every time. And doing that is what makes the difference for customers.”

NRC Health’s data bears him out. In the database of patient comments, the routine parts of the experience—the appointment-setting process, wait times, and the courtesy of registration staff—dominated patient concerns: 60% of patient comments were related to these quotidian concerns of access.

It’s hard for a fancy new diagnostic tool to shine if a customer has to wait for two hours in a waiting room before they see it.

Rallying staff to do the right thing

As Abhishek notes, these basics are deceptively simple. Consistency is key, and it takes no less than a comprehensive effort from everyone on a health system’s staff to bring that consistency into a workflow.

Fortunately, as both Abhishek and Jennifer can attest, healthcare staff are some of the most motivated people in the workforce.

“Never forget, these people are caregivers,” Abhishek says. “They’re showing up every day to do their best and help people.”

And spurring them to success can be as simple as giving them insight into their performance.

“By sending them experience data every day, we send the message that their contributions are meaningful in a real, measurable way,” Abhishek adds. “That’s much more compelling than an organizational mission statement.”

Jennifer agrees that this data can have an impact—especially when it’s packaged alongside comments from the patients themselves.

“People in healthcare, they’re not always motivated by incentive programs or by changes in compensation,” she says. “But show them what patients are saying about them, how their reputation is on the line—that’s what gets them going.”

It starts with a vision of understanding

Foundational to every approach in improving the patient experience, then, is understanding how patients will receive that experience—and continuously striving to improve it. That’s what draws customers in, and keeps them coming back.

Or, as Jennifer puts it: “We in healthcare may be called to serve, and we want to heal, but in order to do that, we have to be chosen.”

Winning that long-term loyalty is the focus of this year’s Consumer Trends Report.

Drawing from two enormous datasets—over two million patient comments and responses from more than 300,000 households in NRC Health’s Market Insights database—this report explores the healthcare customer’s preferences in unprecedented depth.

In the report, you’ll learn:

—Which access issues are the most urgent for organizations to address

—How customers’ needs shift across generations

—When your customers need to hear from you

—And more!

To learn what your customers are saying in order to inform your vision of tomorrow’s healthcare experience, read the full report, available here.