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Technology and consumerism: why healthcare leaders should care

Healthcare consumers want the ability to receive services when, where, and how they want them. 

The topic of the latest episode of NRC Health’s Patient No Longer podcast explores how extreme ownership in the healthcare industry starts with a mindset that it can’t be “us vs. them”—it must be everyone collectively coming together to make the healthcare experience better for consumers. 

Kent Sona, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Nebraska Methodist Health System, believes that healthcare consumerism drives the need for the industry to share that responsibility mindset so that consumers have the engagement and communication they need. 

“Healthcare consumerism is the ability for our consumers to shop and get the type of healthcare services they want, where and when they want them,” he says. “Consumers are becoming very educated and very smart. So in today’s day and age, they want the ability to research different providers, look at star ratings, see a little about the providers, and plan on who they feel would be the best fit for them and the care they’re looking for. And then they want the ability to receive those services, when and where they want them.” 

Sona’s background in information technology both in and out of healthcare, combined with his career in the U.S. Army, gives him a unique perspective into the hearts and minds of consumers. He says that Amazon, big tech companies, and pharmaceuticals are all moving to deliver medications to a consumer’s doorstep, and hitting the market hard—so the challenge for healthcare leaders is to be aware of how the market is changing and stay ahead of it. 

“One thing we try to pride ourselves on is the provider-patient relationship,” he says. “That’s some stickiness, to keep them with the health system. From the technology side, that’s what we’re looking for; as we look at these mobile platforms and have conversations with our patients, what is that stickiness? But I think where we edge them out is on the healthcare side, the quality of care, the meaning of care.” 

Sona believes that when health systems let down consumers’ expectations, it impacts their relationship with their providers, whether that’s through long wait times or having to navigate insurance to pay their bills. 

“We need ways to make that easier and more friendly for consumers, to create a more positive experience and allow for that stickiness to happen. We don’t want those frustrating experiences to occur, because essentially what’ll happen is you’ll start losing those patients to other organizations that are getting that stuff right.” 

He suggests that healthcare systems must look at the entire customer experience and pull in those affiliated partners to work collectively and decide how to improve the end user’s experience. While he says technology can help in some ways, it’s sometimes viewed as adding a complication. 

“Change is hard for some people, especially when they think something’s working well,” he says. “But when we hear how technology is complex or challenging, we have to ask if we are doing that to ourselves.” 

A recent example was a remote check-in rolled out at Nebraska Methodist Health System. The purpose was to try to reduce the amount of work at the front desk and provide a better patient experience, to roll it out and introduce more functionalities slowly. “By trying to boil the ocean on things like that, often consumers get overwhelmed,” he says. “And then, again, technology is hard. They can say, ‘This is way too complex. I’d rather just talk to someone.’ It’s much easier to pick some simple steps, getting them used to it. I think COVID introduced a lot of technology, and people are getting more comfortable with it. We’ve just got to make sure it’s the right balance.” 

Sona says the key to balancing technology with user experience is ensuring that measurable objectives are part of the mission—and looking at utilization data. Part of his organization’s consumer-satisfaction surveys included both negative and positive comments, he explains. But when leaders start to see the data, they can have different conversations with front-end staff.  

“It’s no fault of their own—they’re trying to do what’s best for patients,” he says. “They may be listening to one or two complaining, but they’re ignoring the 50 they saw that day that didn’t say anything because they liked it. Those are the type of conversations we have, and we try to use data to really combat that perception. Just to show the facts behind it, and let the business ultimately drive the decision. But when they have the facts, it makes it much easier.” 

Sona says that what they’ve done from an IT perspective is to highlight the value of technology using an IT governance process. “The business group submits ideas, and they will go in and research those ideas,” he says. “We’ll come up with technology solutions to help deliver on those ideas. But part of our project planning, before anything gets approved by the governance committees, is that an executive sponsor from the business must come up with measurable objectives.” 

Learn more about healthcare consumerism—and why Sona feels it should take a cue from Little House on the Prairie—in this episode of NRC Health’s Patient No Longer podcast.