Graphic of a shopping basket full of healthcare items to represent healthcare consumerism.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a healthcare provider in 2023 who doesn’t believe in patient-centered care. A McKinsey study found 90% of healthcare executives and 100% of chief marketing officers surveyed identified healthcare consumerism as a top priority for their organizations.

Despite statistics like these, there’s an ongoing challenge for many healthcare organizations. It’s how to develop healthcare consumerism into a practice that impacts patients, even as the organizations are still trying to define exactly what the term means.

Defining healthcare consumerism

First, it might be helpful to know the most recent definition of healthcare consumerism. For that, we turned to Victor Reiss, UNC Health’s VP of Consumerism and Insights.

“Healthcare consumerism is a movement to advance healthcare to be more consumer-centric. Consumerism doesn’t just mean that people have choices. It means they have table stakes expectations and in many cases, the local plumber, oil change company or automobile repair shop is doing a better job than healthcare on getting convenience, scheduling and access correct.”

Victor added, “That means we must do better at speaking to consumers, understanding pain points and shifting how healthcare works to better support patients. For marketers, that means understanding consumers’ needs and then designing and building with those needs at the center in ways that address experience, operations and strategic ambitions while inspiring innovation and consumer-centered design.”

Functions that address these areas include growth marketing, consumer insights, brand management and marketing technology. Victor oversees these functions and more and is driven by the goal of advancing healthcare to better engage patients.

“Consumers struggle with making and sustaining healthy choices related to wellness (mental and physical), nutrition and physical activity,” Victor says. “They have trouble fitting medical care into their busy lives. What’s more, they are increasingly being forced to navigate the system not only for themselves and their children but also for their aging parents.”

In a world where consumers are used to high-touch engagement and personalization from industries like retail and banking, they have come to expect the same from their healthcare. These consumers have higher expectations, more choices and more ways to find information than ever before — and they won’t hesitate to vote with their feet, their wallets and their clicks when they find a better alternative, Victor says. “With increased access to healthcare information, power is now in the hands of the consumer,” he adds. “Markets aren’t static and neither are consumers. What’s important today might not be important tomorrow (or might be twice as important) and we, as marketers, need to stay on top of those consumer trends.”

Jump to the video: Healthcare Consumerism | Tips in Ten(ish) Minutes | WriterGirl

We also must, Victor says, be willing to navigate around “toxic positivity” and engage in radical candor and introspection. That means accepting that engaging with health systems is not easy for consumers, access needs to be declared a “wicked problem” and that we need to shift blame away from the consumer for not knowing how to navigate the complexity of the system.

“Healthcare continues to privilege internal workflows, processes and operations above what makes life easier for the consumer,” Victor says. “Consumers are willing to switch providers if it promises to be an easier, simpler experience. This is quickly becoming a revenue bottom-line issue. The experience is broken or rudimentary at best.”

One of the worst-case scenarios for marketers is when their company, product or service becomes merely tolerable for consumers. Worse yet, the marketers remain unaware of those feelings. These consumers are likely to switch as soon as they have a better choice.

“I experienced that a couple of years ago where I was tolerating a cable company and all of a sudden, one day, Google Fiber knocked on my door and voila, I switched,” Victor says. “The cable company probably thought I was satisfied because I had been with them for a period of time, but as soon as a better alternative presented itself, I switched.”

How to remain relevant to consumers

How can healthcare organizations remain relevant to patients in a world where consumer mindsets can change so rapidly? Victor offers three pieces of guidance to stay disciplined.

1. Know your why

A key to remaining patient-centric is understanding the why behind what you’re doing. “If people don’t buy what you do, they oftentimes buy why you do it,” Victor says. “It’s all about purpose and staying focused on your North Star.”

As healthcare marketers in a competitive landscape, it’s our responsibility to clearly show the value our organization brings to consumers. This includes the reasons we do our work. Patients might not understand the intricacies of neurosurgery, but they understand compassionate care. Importantly, we must also communicate that value to the consumer by making our content patient-friendly.

Read more: How to improve health literacy by making your content patient-friendly

2. Stay focused on what you need to do (and on what you’re not doing)

Speaking of staying focused, we have limited time as healthcare marketers and, at some point, have to decide what we will and will not do. “If you chase two rabbits, you don’t catch either one,” Victor says. “Stick to something until you arrive at your destination or goal.”

Given the ever-increasing numbers of channels, tools and content types available to marketers, it’s easy to get pulled into many different directions to the point where nothing gets done. Victor suggests that along with the to-do lists many of us love creating, we also build a do-not list that includes all the things that are distracting and pulling you away from your ability to focus on those you want to drive forward.

The first thing on Victor’s do-not list? “Don’t over obsess with looking for perfect data. There’s an art and a science to decision-making and it’s easy to say, ‘Give me more data.’ Yes, you want it to be insights-informed and data-driven, but don’t discount the power of intuition.”

This do-not list might be surprising to the data-driven marketer. But, Victor says, there’s a difference between having enough information to make decisions and having too much information. The latter approach can hinder your ability to move forward in a way that’s relevant to patients — especially when disruptors in the space are advancing the conversation so much faster.

“I’ve seen a lot of companies obsess over process and committees instead of working to make decisions with the information they have available,” Victor says. It’s important to keep in mind that a tolerance for “good enough is enough” can sometimes advance the conversation.

3. Solve problems and pain points

One area we may lose sight of is why the consumer is seeking to resolve a particular issue or need. Solving problems and pain points is central to healthcare consumerism, especially as these pain points can shift so rapidly. However, many healthcare marketers make the mistake of stopping when they identify the problem rather than solving the problem in a way that supports patients.

“We often lose focus because we admire the problem instead of being focused on how we solve the problem,” Victor says. “At the end of the day, customers have jobs to be done and it’s important that we listen and understand why they are hiring us to solve a particular issue or need.”

Reasons to be optimistic about healthcare consumerism in 2023

Healthcare consumerism means a patient-centric approach in all aspects of care. Fortunately, the healthcare ecosystem is driving toward this goal together, with incumbents and disruptors devising renovations, innovations and inventions to address gaps in how we support patients to push healthcare forward.

Solving these challenges requires a team effort but, Victor says, the pieces are in place to address these questions. “I would argue that whether you are an existing healthcare system, a disruptor or someone on the fringe, we all have a piece of that puzzle. And wouldn’t it be great in 2023 instead of us just trying to build our separate puzzle pieces, we could come together and solve the larger complex issues.”

Finally, Victor says, he is encouraged by the opportunities AI and other technologies bring us. But these tools will also make us appreciate the direct human-to-human interaction even more. That’s because healthcare is still a human endeavor and the patients we support are seeking that person-centric touch — a trend that will not be passing anytime soon.

Watch our Tips in Ten(ish) Minutes video with Victor


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