Healthcare 2.0: Patients as consumers

Using market research as a tool may help improve relationships with and the care of patients

Businesses have used market research for decades to determine what brand of soap consumers like the most, or which luxury car is the “coolest,” but physician leaders and hospital C-suite managers have traditionally shied away from such Madison Avenue tactics. In fact, many providers don’t even want to think of their patients as consumers. That may be a mistake.

A 2011 Deloitte Survey suggested that the public is becoming increasingly selective about its healthcare choices. Several recent developments have been responsible for this shift. Firstly, advances in medical technology and mobile health are enabling a growing number of consumers to take care of themselves. Second, employers are passing on more of the cost of medical care to the public in the form of high deductible insurance. Lastly, the public is taking an interest in health as they never have before.

[See also: Measuring marketing communications effectiveness in healthcare.]

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Put another way, providers can no longer expect their clientele to patiently follow old habits and continue using the same expensive services that were once paid for by third parties. Many organizations realize that this sea change may require them to treat patients as consumers and develop a customer service mentality the public has come to expect of other businesses. Even the federal government is jumping on this bandwagon, having recently released its Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems survey. One of the goals of the HCAHPS survey was to “produce data about patients' perspectives of care that allow objective and meaningful comparisons of hospitals on topics that are important to consumers.”

If the federal government is beginning to view patients as consumers, does it make sense for the rest of the industry to do so? David Pate, MD, JD, CEO at St. Luke’s Health System in Boise, thinks so. He and his team have done extensive consumer research to help them redesign the patient experience for their diverse population. St. Luke’s is in transformation mode, trying to put more resources into population health management (PHM) and wants to understand the voice of the consumer in order to make this transition, he explained.

Tony Tomazic, the chief transformation officer, has spearheaded the consumer research initiative to get some deep insights on their potential clientele. Using focus groups, paper and telephone surveys, and consultants, St Luke’s was able to learn what the public thought not only about the health system, but more generically what they want from healthcare providers, insights that informed St. Luke’s new promotional campaign.

“If you are going to engage in an outreach program, you want to know who your audience is,” said Dan Goldberg, CEO at Gold Medical Marketing.  But Goldberg also encourages providers to do some internal market research by using their EHR system to find deficiencies in the patient panel they already see. “If you have a very high percentage of patients 55 and older, but are missing the 35 to 55 age group … you may want to focus your research on that segment that is not being adequately served.”

Raquel Baldelomar, of Quaintise, another marketing firm, says consumer research is now starting to tap into big data analytics to get a more precise picture of a provider’s clientele and its interest. That includes website usage, ads viewed online and social media information. Researchers can gauge patients’ response to a healthcare organization’s promotional campaign by mining this more granular data.

Although statistics on the number of providers who do consumer research are hard to find, the proliferation of market research vendors who cater to the healthcare industry suggests quite a few are going this route. Is there a downside?

Veteran clinicians point out that viewing patients as consumers can be a slippery slope if it goes too far. Unlike other businesses, which are only concerned about giving the consumer what he or she wants in order to make a sale, healthcare professionals also have a responsibility to give the public what it needs, even when it’s not necessarily what it wants. Few patients eagerly approach their doctor asking for a screening colonoscopy, for instance, or volunteer that they are victims of domestic violence. But providers still have an obligation to offer services to address these issues.