In a healthcare consumer's world, physician engagement is key

Apocalypse rhetoric aside, this world really is coming to an end.

[See also: Nanotechnology in healthcare sparks interest while general awareness dwindles]

Biospheres are culminating to make room for more relevant ownership. The man’s world is little more than a refrain sounding off from a dusty jukebox; the dog-eat-dog world is yesterday’s kibble; and the free world is moving away from restraint one chain-link at a time. It’s inevitable, necessary even — with every era, someone or something new must lay claim to the universe, and if a recent Harris Poll has any credence in the matter, today’s world surely belongs to the “healthcare consumer” over all other prefects in contention.

As Debra Richman, senior vice president, Healthcare Business Development & Strategy, Harris Interactive, told PhysBizTech: “It’s a very dynamic time in our industry with changes in accountable care, and reimbursement and access…and consumerism as well, which I think has a real impact on practices.”

Indeed, there once was a time when patients weren’t required to make conscious purchasing decisions for themselves regarding their healthcare. Professionals assumed all responsibility — and thus were subject to more blame — in the yesteryears of medicine. But with individualism at its technological and corporate apex, a new patient prototype has emerged, one that allows for healthcare agency to shift from a one-sided burden hoisted by physicians and medical staffers almost exclusively, to a joint effort touted by both the doctor and the doctored.

Exit patients; enter “healthcare consumers.”

“Healthcare patients are becoming healthcare consumers and…what we’re starting to see in healthcare is that consumer behavior is beginning to mirror how consumers behave when making other purchasing decisions, whether for consumer goods or financial services,” Richman noted. “What goes along with that is an expectation — when we make our other purchasing decisions we have an expectation as to what the quality, the service and the product will deliver for us. As we make more and more of our healthcare decisions that mirror how we make those other consumer purchasing decisions, we’ll have similar expectations.”

Such patrons are assured, insured (especially with the Affordable Care Act on the fast track to implementation) and prepared to wield their decision-making savvy in a rapidly evolving marketplace. They are already asking their doctors more questions than ever before; as employers, they are making multiple insurance options available to their workers; online treatment and healthcare referral websites are being referenced on a major scale; and retail clinics/walk-in centers are experiencing more foot-traffic. For this series of reasons, among others, Harris Pollers embarked upon a mission to measure the mindset of the “healthcare consumer” as a means to establish behavioral guidelines for the morphing clientele.

"Customer experience matters in healthcare and will continue to impact purchasing decisions and customer retention," Richman said in a news release. "The healthcare consumer is increasingly evaluating brand equity, convenience and product or service value as they make choices. In an increasingly competitive healthcare marketplace, a positive customer experience will serve to differentiate health plans and providers."

Harris Interactive revealed the following about satisfaction in the consumer-patient psyche, derived from surveying 2,311 U.S. adults (ages 18 and over) between July 16 and July 23, 2012:

  • Among the 84 percent of Americans who visited a doctor's office within the past year, nearly half (47 percent) reported being very satisfied with their last medical visit; an additional 36 percent described themselves as somewhat satisfied. 
  • Medical visit satisfaction appears to rise with both age and education:  very satisfied ratings range from 35 percent among Echo Boomers (ages 18-35) to 56 percent among Matures (ages 67+), and from 44 percent among those with a high school education or less to 52 percent among those with post graduate education.
  • Satisfaction falls short of levels observed for several other industries, particularly those with more of a focus on providing a pleasurable experience:  very satisfied ratings are behind those reported for Americans' last restaurant visit (63 percent), their last online purchase (62 percent), and their last bank visit (59 percent). 
  • Dissatisfaction with most recent healthcare provider visits (17 percent) is comparable to levels observed for recent mobile phone store visits (also 17 percent) and health insurance company interactions (18 percent).
  • When asked to rate a series of factors on their importance in driving a positive experience, the clear top issue in patients' minds is their doctor's overall knowledge, training and expertise (with 83 percent rating it very important).  Their doctor's ability to access their overall medical history (62 percent) and time spent with their doctor (59 percent) are the next most vital factors, while appearance and atmosphere of the doctor's office (26 percent) and minimizing paperwork (29 percent) are the least important issues.

As customer satisfaction differs slightly from patient satisfaction, this new evaluation emphasis poses a challenge for physicians.

“The challenge for physicians is that people will measure their satisfaction with their physician based on that experience, not just with the potential outcome of that healthcare visit,” Richman said.

She added: “I think the healthcare industry for years has tried to define what goes into quality and I think there are very objective measures of quality in terms of health outcomes; I think there are more subjective measures of quality that speak to the customer experience.”

On the grounds of technological desires for the “healthcare consumers,” the Harris survey found:

  • The service which is currently most widely available (online access to medical records) is available to 17 percent of patients – a number greatly outweighed by the percentage without the service available but considering it very important (32 percent) or important (33 percent).
  • Results show a similar disparity for all of the tested services, including (among others) email access to doctors, online appointment setting and online billing and payments. The greatest gap between desire and fulfillment is seen for an online cost estimator:  only 6 percent of patients report being offered the service now, while just over three in five are without the service and describe it as either very important (26 percent) or important (36 percent).

Richman discussed technology as a integral component to the advancement of the healthcare market: “One of the components of consumerism in healthcare is that we’re going to start to incorporate technology in ways we haven’t done before and I think one of the things we saw with the study, and we see it with some of our other research, is that consumers really do want to interact with their physicians in a certain way.”

It’s also a place where physicians can easily meet their patients' developing needs.

“If you look at the release and the fact that we do know that consumers, as an example, want to have electronic [access] — they want to have online and email access to their primary care physicians and many of them do not have that opportunity now,” Richman said. “So what can physicians do? Physicians can meet their patients where they are. I think that there are some patients who will want to be communicated with by phone; there will be some patients who will want to be communicated with by email; there will be some patients who will want to be communicated with by text and I think the ability of the physician and the physician’s practice to meet the consumer where they are...will be very valuable.”

Retail clinics are also emerging as one of healthcare’s rising stars. The Harris Poll noted that:

  • Roughly two-thirds (65 percent) of patients indicate being likely to utilize retail facilities for flu shots, and roughly half indicate being likely to visit a retail clinic seeking care for a cold or flu-like symptoms (53 percent), a cut or puncture wound (49 percent), a rash (47 percent), cholesterol or blood pressure tests (47 percent), or lab services such as blood sugar testing (47 percent).  
  • Roughly one-fourth of those surveyed said they would be likely to go to retail clinic facilities for a regular check up regarding a chronic condition (27 percent), and one-third or more would be likely to go for all other tested treatments.

“We have historically looked at retail clinics as being where someone will go to get a flu shot or if a child has an earache, but with the expanding services in a number of these clinics and their increased availability and access, I think we’re going to see a lot of growth in this sector. I think they’ll be a significant player in the marketplace, especially if we start to really see development of a lot of health insurance exchanges,” Richman concluded.

And as such, the world turns.

Find more on the Harris Poll here.

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