The consumer experience in healthcare is becoming more important. Health economist Jane Sarasohn-Kahn shares how healthcare ranks among other industries.

By Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, MA, MHSA

Consumer and patient satisfaction are gaining increased attention and credibility among both health plans and healthcare systems as more people are looking at healthcare choices as consumers—making mindful decisions about plan and provider choices. This is as true for commercially insured patients facing high deductibles as it is for Medicare Advantage enrollees.

COVID-19 changed healthcare, prompting patients to delay care in the initial phase of the pandemic. Now in the middle of the second year of the coronavirus, the Delta variant has extended the end-point of the pandemic into endemic persistence, with the potential of a Mu variant now in the sights of epidemiologists and virus hunters around the world.

In addition to delaying care—especially ambulatory and outpatient services delivered in hospital settings—health consumers also began to turn to virtual care options.

More contactless, safe and convenient sites for care have proliferated in consumers’ communities and local touchpoints, serving up hygienic protocols and faster service— increasingly digital.

These features are becoming the lenses through which patients-as-consumers judge quality, access and value in healthcare interactions.

What’s Driving Satisfaction In Other Consumer-facing Sectors?

Healthcare industry segments do not typically benchmark well against other sectors of the consumer-facing economy.

The annual American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) revealed in its latest survey that breweries, restaurants, soft drink companies, TVs, apparel, cell phones and personal care product manufacturers all scored high on customer satisfaction.

But hospitals, health insurance and ambulatory care all rank below the median compared with other industries. Unfortunately, ACSI analysts noted that healthcare and hospitals reached their lowest index score in nearly two decades.

Trust is another facet of consumer experience and a key for health engagement. Thus, it is useful to understand what brands are trusted—and why. In Morning Consult’s study into the most trusted brands in 2021, their theme was “catalyzing consumer trust in a changed world”—that is, a world changed by a pandemic.

Healthcare companies ranked well with respect to trust, albeit still behind restaurants, food and beverage manufacturers, homecare product companies, and retailers.

Improving Experiences Through Pandemic Responses

Digging into the details of the Morning Consult study, specific brands bolstered trust in the wake of COVID-19 based on their responses to the pandemic. Some of these top performers included big box retailers such as Costco, Target and Walmart; online retailers such as Amazon; cleaning brands such as Clorox and Lysol; pharma and healthcare companies including CVS Health, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer; and entertainment companies such as Apple and Disney.

Earlier this year, Morning Consult assessed the fastest-growing consumer brands of 2020. In my analysis of these, I deduced that the top 20 of these companies had everything to do with the pandemic and safe living at home. Those fast-growing brands included organizations enabling connectivity (e.g., Zoom, Cisco WebEx and Microsoft Teams); home hygiene (e.g., Clorox); food delivery (e.g., Amazon Fresh and Instacart); virtual money (e.g., Venmo); and entertainment (e.g., Peacock and HBO Max). Interestingly, vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and AstraZeneca also showed up in the list of these top 20 fastest-growing brands.

We who extensively use these sorts of data sets almost never see a pharmaceutical company registering so prominently in consumers’ minds. However, in the age of COVID, Pfizer and AstraZeneca became household brand names in 2020 as hopes of getting a vaccine to market grew.

Pfizer and Moderna showed up in the top 10 reputation rankings in a similar study from the Axios Harris Poll.

So, what lessons can healthcare learn from companies delivering winning consumer experiences?

To provide some useful healthcare industry context, we can look to the J.D. Power 2021 Commercial Member Health Plan Study, gauging members’ satisfaction and engagement with their health plans in the first quarter of 2021. Notwithstanding the gains for commercial health plans identified by J.D. Power, more than 1 in 3 health plan members had no engagement with their health plan, especially lacking among pre-boomers and baby boomers. But key findings from the survey reflect on lessons to learn from the highest-ranking health plans:

  • Members’ digital contact and virtual care adoption significantly increased in 2020.
  • Overall patient satisfaction, Net Promoter Scores® and trust grew in the year, driven by those providers building more transparency into information sites.
  • Greater digital contact yielded greater consumer satisfaction, especially among Millennials/Gen Z patients.

Improving the Consumer Experience With Digital Empathy

Clearly, digital transformation supports improved consumer experiences. But even the most promising digital transformations for healthcare will not maximally benefit staff and end-user consumers, patients, and caregivers without a strong dose of empathy embedded within the technology.

This leads us to the emerging concept of digital empathy. Christopher Terry and Jeff Cain discussed this in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education in 2016, defining the concept as “the traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and caring for others expressed through computer-mediated communications.”

They tracked the growing use of digital tech in healthcare, with the reduction of expressions of empathy in digital settings, writing:

“As the provision of healthcare services becomes more entwined with a technological world, we must elevate the construct of digital empathy into the collective consciousness of both educators and trainees in the medical community and seek to prepare future healthcare providers to exhibit empathy in digital venues.”

We need to do the same in other stakeholder communities including, but not limited to, digital tech innovators, along with those who adopt their innovations—health plans, health systems, pharma companies and others who are moving increasingly up close-and-personal with patients.

As Terry and Cain conclude, “Efforts to address the emerging issue of digital empathy and its expression should begin now, as relationships remain essential to delivering optimal patient care.”

For more on improving the consumer experience and following the examples of organizations outside of healthcare, read Improving the Consumer Experience: 3 Lessons for Healthcare.

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