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What did healthcare consumers talk about in 2019? A Q&A with NRC Health Vice President Brian Wynne

Published here at Becker’s Hospital Review.  

The data from NRC Health’s 2020 Consumer Trends Report is clear on one thing: healthcare organizations saw no reprieve from the forces of consumerism in 2019.

Today’s consumers are expecting more from their providers. They’re less tolerant of frustration, savvier in navigating alternatives, and more than ready to switch providers if their expectations aren’t met.

That’s hard news for organizations leaning on outdated tactics to win customer loyalty—but not for health systems that are ready to distinguish themselves.

In this Q&A, Brian Wynne, Vice President and General Manager at NRC Health, explains how.

First, explain the data. Why should leaders sit up and pay attention?

This year’s Consumer Trends study explores customers’ thoughts and preferences with unprecedented depth. For the first time, we’ve combined and explored the two aspects of the healthcare customer’s identity: as a consumer and as a patient.

To bring these two identities together, we drew from two immense datasets. First, we used Market Insights, our consumer survey with more than 300,000 respondents across 300 different markets in the U.S.—the largest database of its kind. Second, we collected responses from Real-time patient comments: more than two million from 2019 alone.

These datasets provide an unparalleled level of insight into healthcare customers’ priorities.

What is the most urgent trend you see emerging from the data?

A consistent macro-theme is that both consumers and patients expect high-quality care—as table stakes for their business—but continue to put a strong emphasis on the ease with which it is provided. Our data suggests that healthcare organizations that reduce friction in the care experience will be rewarded with customer favor, and perhaps even loyalty.

We do see a further nuance in this year’s data, with regard to “ease.” Where “convenience” was last year’s byword, this year, questions of access are dominating the discussion: 60% of patient comments mention access-related parts of the care experience.

Consumers agree, with 51% reporting ease of access as a determining factor in their health decisions. Consumer preference for ease of access is a strong predictor of utilization, but direct patient feedback shows access to be a robust predictor of loyalty.

If a patient leaves a positive comment about admission or registration, for instance, they’re 46 times more likely to be a promoter for a healthcare brand than those who leave a negative comment. Positive comments about wait times have a similarly strong correlation, tracking with a 20-fold increased likelihood of being a promoter.

From both the consumer and patient perspectives, then, access emerges as a clear priority.

Does that hold true for all patient cohorts?

Though the general trend of demanding better access is stable across demographics, a deeper look at specific elements of the care experience illuminates sizable differences, especially between generations.

With billing, for instance, Baby Boomers are largely satisfied, with 63% reporting favorably on the experience. The responses of younger generations—Millennials and Generation Z—are in stark contrast to that satisfaction, with 65% of patient comments being negative. We observe a similar division on wait times: 70% of Boomer comments are positive, compared to only 50% of Millennial/Generation Z comments.

These are only two of many contrasts that can complicate organizations’ efforts to satisfy all of their customers. However, these data can be a helpful place to begin to develop meaningful strategies that address the wants and needs of these customer cohorts.

What about the experience itself?

There’s good news here! An overwhelming majority of patients—85%—report feeling satisfied with their clinicians (whether nurses, physicians, or others) after a care encounter. Their comments largely reflect the feelings of warmth and respect that befit the care providers in our industry.

If we zoom out a bit for a more expansive view of the care experience, however, the findings are less positive. One aspect of patients’ encounters with their providers appears to be a continual source of frustration across all demographics: the discharge process.

Among Millennial and Generation Z patients in particular, more than 70% of comments about discharge were negative.

From this we can ascertain that well-executed follow-through—guiding patients through their entire continuum of care—is proving to be an essential part of earning patient loyalty.

This is especially true in the event of a service-related error: 75% of consumers expect a follow-up call within two days of a reported service problem. If they don’t hear from their providers within a week, 66% of consumers say that their loyalty is “unrecoverable.”

These are all very strong indications that what happens after an encounter is nearly as important as what happens during one.

What’s the next step for health systems?

The trends we’ve explored here illuminate, in broad strokes, what preoccupies healthcare customers’ minds across the country. For health systems, the task remains to explore what forces are influencing customers in their markets.

Healthcare is a hyperlocal phenomenon. Every market brings its own consumer appetites, its own demographic make-ups, its own population-health issues. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for meeting consumerism’s challenges.

My hope is that these broader insights will be helpful as framing devices, for leaders hoping to shape their own investigations into their communities. It’s that kind of in-depth research, close to the ground, that will bring true understanding to healthcare leadership—and a better understanding of the people we serve will always be a competitive advantage in the marketplace.