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Consumers are increasingly self-empowered in their care decisions -- and place a growing premium on convenience

A robust web presence and offerings like online scheduling and telehealth are imperatives for health systems looking to stay relevant.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

As healthcare becomes ever more patient-centric, consumers are becoming increasingly self-empowered when evaluating their care options. New conveniences like online provider reviews and digital scheduling technologies are changing expectations, with convenience and speed of access remaining top priorities.

An annual report from Kyruus, the third of its kind, showed that for three years in a row the majority of patients conducted online research when looking for a new provider. A new finding this year, though, is that consumer digital search behavior is evolving to rely more heavily on health system web properties.

This year, among those who consulted the internet, 43% visited a health system website, up from 38% in 2018. And the share of consumers starting their searches on these sites is also rising.

"Forty three percent of respondents consulted the health system website, which is a six point increase over the past three years, which I think is fantastic for health systems," said Karen Conley, Kyruus' vice president of clinical services. "They're really focused on health systems to offer these things, (and) health systems have an opportunity to really increase their brand loyalty."

Health systems are beginning to understand that it's imperative for them to have robust online experiences, Conley said. And patients are picking up on it.

Now, things like speed and convenience are not met as a welcome surprise. They're expected. The conveniences found in industries such as retail have had an influence over the healthcare industry, and on what patients demand from their care experiences.

"One of the interesting points was that patients are willing to switch providers (who offer virtual visits) in order to increase their access," said Conley.  "(Even) 18% of baby boomers were willing to switch providers due to convenience. Patients are more willing to look at unique opportunities through other avenues."

Case in point are alternative care sites such as urgent care and retail clinics, which are growing in popularity. In the last year, 44% of survey respondents visited the former, and 39% the latter -- and one-third of respondents would be likely to switch providers for a virtual visit or telehealth option.

"Across the country, it saves time for the providers and the health systems," said Conley of telehealth. "And then of course if there's something more acute it's worth the trip to come into the health system."

Conley said she thinks these types of technological conveniences will be a mandatory offering for hospitals and health systems looking to stay relevant in the eyes of their owners.

"I think consumers will select their health system based on having those types of options," she said.

OTHER FINDINGS

Independent research is still the top method for finding primary care providers, and it's rising for speciality searches, as well. Thirty-two percent of respondents found PCPs themselves, and while provider referrals remained the predominant source for specialists, that share declined from 45% to 40% alongside a comparable rise in self-research.

Insurance and clinical expertise remained among the top criteria for consumers. For the third straight year, the top provider selection criteria were insurance accepted (91% ratted it extremely/very important) and clinical expertise (88%), followed by communication skills, hospital/health system reputation, and appointment availability.

And the preference for self-service scheduling is growing. While consumers still prefer to book appointments by phone, there is rising interest in online booking, as one-third now prefer to schedule online, up from one-quarter in 2017 -- a trend that's particularly pronounced among millennials and Gen Xers.

"Younger people are leading the way when it comes to booking appointments online," said Conley. "Other generations are starting to take advantage of it as well. … One of the interesting things for healthcare systems to measure is what percentage of patients are booking during off-hours. An increasing number are booking off-hours, so it's great for patients' convenience, but it's also great for the healthcare system because they don't necessarily need to be staffing people during those hours.

"Overall, it's important for health leaders to pay attention to the patient care journey," she said. "In order to drive patient loyalty, and drive convenience, health leaders need to really pay attention to this now. We're at a tipping point."

Focus on Patient Experience

This month, our coverage will continue a special focus on the patient experience. We'll talk to the thought leaders and first-movers reimagining the how and where of patient-friendly tech, and report on ways to activate, if not delight, the people they treat.

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com