(US) 1.800.388.4264 | (CANADA) 1.866.771.8231

The patient comes first. But don’t forget the consumer.

There can be little doubt that creating a successful healthcare experience must start with a focus on the patient. But Ryan Donohue, a strategic advisor at NRC Health and faculty member of The Governance Institute, argues that healthcare leaders must also learn to see things a little more broadly.

“We have to remember that patients are people first,” he says.

Before they ever decide to receive care, patients see the world as healthcare consumers. And if health organizations are to have any hope of winning healthcare customer loyalty, it’s this consumer point of view that their leaders must seek to understand.

In a recent presentation to The Governance Institute’s annual Leadership Conference, Donohue spelled out two important ways that healthcare leaders can broaden their perspective to include the consumer as a whole—and build durable patient-provider relationships in the process.

1. Understand what’s behind the gown

First, leaders should consider what happens before a care encounter has even begun.

“When a patient comes in and fills out their admission paperwork, that may be step one for us–but for them, it’s more like step twelve,” Donohue says. “The factors that draw a consumer to a particular organization can take effect months, years, or even decades before a care need comes up.”

The consumer decision-making process is long, complex, and freighted with expectations. Leaders must learn to understand this process, in all its fine-grained detail, in order to attract and retain their customers.

Donohue identifies two major obstacles—unique to the healthcare space—that can occlude this understanding.

The first problem is how much healthcare consumers expect from their providers. According to NRC Health’s research, 82.3% of consumers expect healthcare organizations to meet or exceed their expectations.

“That is, by far, the highest bar to clear for any industry,” Donohue says. “Is that fair? Maybe not. But we have to find a way to live with it.”

For even the simplest transactions, reaching that level of performance would be a challenge. But healthcare, of course, is far from simple—and its complexity is the second obstacle Donohue cites.

To the average consumer, the healthcare system can be absolutely bewildering. NRC Health surveys have found that confusion is the single-most prevalent emotion for consumers facing a care encounter. Often, they’re not sure what they want from their providers, because they don’t understand the system well enough to articulate what they need.

Health organizations therefore face a dual challenge: to clarify the patient experience for the average consumer, and to ensure that this experience lives up to consumer desires.

“Expectations are perhaps the most important factor informing how patients view their care episodes,” Donohue says. “The good news is that we can anticipate what those expectations will be. It’s on us to study the consumer perspective, in order to deliver what the consumer wants.”

2. Create a 3-D experience

Studying what happens before an encounter is always an illuminating exercise. But Donohue also makes the case for an expanded view of what happens during and after care episodes. He calls for a three-dimensional model—one that explores interactions outside the four walls of the facility.

Optimized digital interactions

Digital care delivery was an incipient idea before 2020. Now, in the age of COVID-19, it’s an idea whose time has come.

“Today’s consumers are nearly as likely to ‘walk through’ a device’s screen as they are to walk through your front door,” Donohue says. “That means leaders need to take a hard look at how their digital touchpoints present their brand to the world.”

NRC Health’s research underscores some clear priorities. The data shows that 9 in 10 consumers use online ratings and reviews to select a provider. For 3 in 10, these ratings are the very first step in their search. Cultivating these reviews—and presenting them in a clean, accessible way—is an important way for healthcare brands to establish trust.

Donohue similarly asserts the importance of hospital websites, social-media accounts, and telehealth appointments. Each of these elements should present a modernized interface to the consumer, on par with what they see from out-of-industry digital services.

“Don’t overlook these digital interactions, and don’t write them off as a small part of your strategy,” Donohue says. “These interactions build an ecosystem for your customers. They’ll be fundamental to your success as more and more of the industry goes digital.”

Faster feedback

Healthcare leaders well understand that an encounter doesn’t end with patient discharge. Thoughtful follow-up can make or break a patient’s perception of the entire care experience. Donohue highlights one post-encounter feature in particular—the customer experience survey.

“What’s not always well-appreciated is the fact that how we survey people is a part of the experience,” he says. “It’s how we show that we care about their thoughts. It’s an opportunity to build good will.”

All too often, that opportunity is squandered. If a patient’s only chance to offer feedback is a 40-question bubble survey mailed months after the fact, they may come to believe that their opinions don’t matter much to their providers.

NRC Health research has found that 73% of patients want to deliver feedback within a few days of their care encounter. To gather their customers’ candid thoughts, and to demonstrate their readiness to hear them, leaders should strive to deliver surveys within that timeframe.

Faster service recovery

In the end, though, it’s not just the surveys that matter—it’s what organizations do with patient feedback that really counts.

“From the consumer’s perspective, there’s nothing worse than voicing a concern and having nothing happen,” Donohue says. “It’s a massive betrayal of trust. You’d be better off not even asking for their opinion in the first place.”

Here’s where the art of service recovery comes into play. NRC Health research has found that, in the event of a service error, organizations have about two weeks to make things right—after that, customer loyalty is unrecoverable.

For healthcare organizations that want to retain their customers, this puts a premium on prompt, considerate action. Well-executed service recovery can make the difference between an alienated customer and a loyal patient for life.

An unprecedented opportunity

In a closing note, Donohue reminds leaders of the scale of the opportunity involved.

“If you can retain them, a loyal customer is worth about $1.4 million to your organization,” Donohue says. “Right now, our research shows that only 60% of healthcare consumers are loyal. The good news is, that remaining 40% are ready to become loyal—if organizations deliver what they’re looking for.”

That may seem like an enormous challenge for any organization. But Donohue believes it’s within reach for health systems ready to change their perspective.

“Once we take off the blinders of the ‘patient satisfaction’ way of measuring success, a much more complete picture of the consumer emerges,” he says.

And seeing that picture is the first essential step toward human understanding.