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In the new age of healthcare consumerism, convenience is king

In an era of shifting attitudes and expectations on the part of patients, providers can no longer be content that old models will see them through.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Most will acknowledge that the age of the consumer has arrived in healthcare, but what does that mean, exactly?

For providers, it means they need to start offering convenience, whether it be in the form of telehealth, retail clinics or online bill pay options. And the push to offer these bells and whistles may intensify in the wake of new findings from NRC Health and CHRISTUS Health: Convenience is now the no. 1 factor that influences which provider a consumer will select for their care.

Traditionally, things like referrals and insurance coverage were the main selection criteria for patients. No more. While those factors are still very important, the patient of the modern age wants care when they want it and how they want it -- and they're not shy about shopping around.

"The consumer is more in charge of his or her decision-making," said Brian Wynne, vice president and general manager of NRC Health. "I think there's more of that empowerment going on with consumers where they feel they're more in the driver's seat. Part of that is obviously they have the selection criteria and access to information … but also there are the economic implications. People are more engaged. I think they're taking more ownership."

DEFINING CONVENIENCE

The challenge for providers is that, oftentimes, convenience means different things to different people. Some want physical access to care in a hassle-free manner. Sometimes they want access to information. Sometimes they want to consult with a physician remotely.

To attract business, Wynne said it's important to identify anything that could be cause for friction -- in other words, anything that might be a barrier to the convenience consumers want. When friction occurs, that's when you occasionally see patients take charge of their healthcare alternatives, or even defer care, which obviously isn't in their best interest.

There are various components to convenience. One is the physical location. Walk-in clinics have been growing in popularity, especially in the Midwest, where physical access is a challenge for many people living in rural areas, and people appreciate not having to schedule appointments.

Then there are those organizations that visit the patient in their home. Digital access is also a growing piece of the convenience equation, with patients able to schedule appointments online, essentially reserving a spot like they might do with a restaurant. All of these components are starting to converge and transform the healthcare industry.

Some providers are weathering the changes better than others.

"I think it's a challenge, because we've had this model not for years but for decades," said Preston Gee, vice president of strategic marketing at CHRISTUS. "Urgent care clinics have really ramped that up. These new models -- concierge care, coming to your home -- those are kind of a challenge. It's a challenge for legacy providers to keep track of all the changes that are occurring, although some are really standing up."

THE 800-POUND GORILLA

"Agility is not the hallmark of traditional healthcare providers," said Wynne. "Health systems have always been the 800-pound gorilla."

One area in which some legacy providers face challenges is the payment mechanism. Some are in a better position in that regard because they might have their own health plans, for example; it's generally easier for them to adopt to new models because they have the payment mechanisms already in place. Others might have more of a struggle.

"What we're really talking about is transformational change, so you have to change the way you're investing," said Wynne. "It all sort of comes into question. When looking at change or change management, for very large organizations it's very hard to change the way you operate overnight.

"Health systems can lean more heavily on their vendor partners, so they should look for synergy that can help in easing that transition," he said. "That can be done if you look at the data aspect of what we know about people and their experiences. If I'm a health leader or CEO, I'm starting to demand that of my partners."

According to Gee, one of the reasons there has been so much merger and acquisition activity  of late is because in order to compete, healthcare organizations need the resources, and often that means scale.

While that's a viable enough strategy, more creative collaboration is needed that extends the range and reach of health systems so they can be more front-and-center in people's lives. That's one simple mind shift that doesn't require monetary investment.

"I'm hopeful that over the next five,10 years, we can see that emphasis," said Gee. "The consumer is only going to become more engaged. You've got to get them more involved in his or her care. … Instead of saying, 'Let's be prescriptive,' like we historically have been, we're saying, 'Let's let the consumer dictate the approach.'"

"The option to do nothing is no longer an option," Wynne said. "The stakes are too high."
 

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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