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The healthcare strategists and marketers guide to 2018

Brian Wynne, Vice President and General Manager, NRC Health


What a time to be in healthcare. Every week brings big changes: a blockbuster merger, a tech giant entering the space, or a new disruptive technology premiering on the scene. Thrilling as it is, those of us in the industry are asking—with just a hint of anxiety—“What  could all this mean for our organizations, and for our roles within them?”

The bad news: our work is unlikely to get any easier. Health-system strategists and marketers will have to do more with less. You’ll be asked to grow revenue without a ballooning budget, design seamless and customer-centric experiences with your brand, and synchronize customer experience today with the consumer expectations of tomorrow. None of that will be easy.

But there are opportunities here, too. There’s a revolution underway in healthcare, and it will come to a new maturity in 2018. You’ll have an all-important role to play in the changes to come.

To help you prepare, here are six predictions for what the next year will bring.

1) New roles for governing boards and the C-suite

 First, healthcare consumerism will rise to new prominence in the C-suite. Health systems will reorganize themselves to meet the attendant challenges and opportunities that consumerism creates.

Hospital boards will form “consumerism committees” or, at the very least, elevate consumerism to a central pillar of governance alongside stalwarts like finance, quality and safety, physician relations, and population health.

Further, a new class of executive will emerge this year: the Chief Consumer Officer (CCO). A small handful of large health systems have already committed to the role. They realize the need to bring together strategy, marketing, and consumer experience into a central function to enable the creation of a unified brand experience to grow system revenue.

2) Digital engagement spending will double (again)

More than ever, healthcare consumers are online and on their mobile devices. Health systems will need to marshal up every available resource to reach them.

To see why, study the emerging generation of healthcare customers. We know Millennials are phone-obsessed, but they don’t hold a candle to their successors. Those born after 1995—the so-called Generation Z—spend twice as much time on their phones as Millennials, and are twice as likely as Millennials to make purchases online.

Healthcare marketers and strategists need to be keen to capture these future consumers of healthcare. Remember, your new competitors, like Amazon and Apple, are already on the case.

3) A big uptick in Natural Language Processing

For many health systems, much of this digital investment will move toward Natural Language Processing (NLP).

NLP enables organizations to instantly understand and aggregate the voices of their consumers. It algorithmically analyzes patient comments, parsing out commonalities and organizing them by sentiment, demographic, or any other factors a marketing team might find useful.

Right now, most health systems are in a tentative exploratory phase with NLP, and pilot programs abound. But in 2018, we’re going to see much more sophisticated NLP development.

4) Service recovery will speed up—dramatically

The combination of real-time customer feedback and NLP makes instant intervention much easier. Patient complaints no longer have to wait for human analysis. Instead, algorithms automatically identify opportunities for essential clinical and experiential follow-up, enabling customer experience teams to address the right issues at the right time.

This instantaneous intervention will extend even further, as it should. Real-time feedback will eliminate any excuse for lag time.

Consider an out-of-industry example: Delta Airlines. Currently, should a passenger provide negative feedback on Twitter about their experience with the airline, a bot (if not a human representative) responds within an hour—without fail.

Immediate responses are what today’s consumers have become conditioned to expect. Health systems will begin to emulate Delta in that way.

5) Price transparency emergence

Opaque pricing for healthcare services has consumers frustrated and confused. That’s why, in 2018, price transparency will rise.

The price transparency movement has two fronts. The first is governmental. Some states—like Colorado, Maine, and New Hampshire—have already legislated price transparency into practice. The second front is commercial. Start-ups like Amino are working to bring prices out into the open.

This trend will not roll back. Health systems that get out ahead of it will be rewarded. Publishing price information will continue to earn goodwill and trust from consumers.

6) The true age of wellness

Upfront pricing may help patients shop for healthcare services, but the brutal truth is, most consumers would rather not become patients in the first place. For this reason, the $3 trillion–strong (and growing) wellness industry will continue to thrive in 2018.

The vast majority of consumers would rather go to the gym, buy biofeedback devices, purchase anti-aging products, or join a cooking class than go to the hospital. Historically, health systems—with compensation tied to volumes—have struggled to capture this market.

But given the encroachment of new non-traditional providers, health system leaders will be more motivated than ever. They’ll conceive new ways to participate in “wellness,” and execution will fall to those of us in marketing and consumer experience.

It all comes together

At first blush, these may seem like an intimidating array of issues to manage. But it’s important to remember that they’re all facets of the same issue: a transformational shift in consumer preferences.
This shift means that solid marketing strategy and execution have never been so important. The formula for success remains the same: the right engagement, with the right consumers, at the right time. Marketers and strategists that manage to achieve that formula will have healthier communities, healthier bottom lines, and a more defensible position in tomorrow’s healthcare market.