Corporate America has long known that one key to achieving and sustaining a loyal customer base is to promote a culture. Apple is a prime example of a company that does this.
Apple consumers can get devices of similar functionality — smartphones, computers, fitness monitors and other gadgets — from other providers and on other operating systems. Yet, they’ll line up outside Apple stores on product launch days. They’ll search tech news articles for the tiniest hints about what products the company may be developing next. They’ll wear Apple logoed clothing, put Apple logo stickers on their cars, laptops, notebooks and more.
Why? Examine its marketing with this understanding in mind and you’ll see that the company’s success is based at least as much (if not more) on image than innovation: Apple is, first and foremost, a lifestyle company.
Healthcare companies aren’t that dissimilar from a brand like Apple.
When everyone at a healthcare organization is doing his or her job correctly, the quality of care a consumer receives should not vary from one provider group to the next. That’s what licensure and board certifications are designed to ensure.
And consumers expect that to be the case, because they don’t want to envision the alternative. They don’t want to think about this or that provider being less qualified than another. They can’t afford to pay a cheaper rate for lesser quality care.
Nor can healthcare organizations afford (from a medico-legal standpoint) to knowingly hire lower quality providers at cut rates — the long-term risks and costs associated with malpractice make this not only a bad business decision, but an unethical one as well.
So, for a business environment in which all suppliers ideally bring identical products of identical quality to market, how can competition proceed? How can hospitals and provider organizations differentiate from their competitors?
Service? Improving service can be a differentiator if the healthcare organization approaches service through the lens of healthcare consumers. Simply improving care quality is not enough — patients expect high quality care, and only notice quality when it isn’t there. Patients seek strong interpersonal skills from clinicians and administrators, to be treated with respect, and be made to feel that the healthcare organization values their business.
Sounds easy enough, but in reality this can be difficult to operationalize. Ensuring everyone understands how healthcare consumers think and feel, and how to most effectively engage them is an investment in time, and incentivizing this behavior is an investment in dollars and organizational change management. It would be a positive culture change, but one that takes dedication in the face of increasing patient demand.
Tech? Yes and no. Tech is the current hot button topic among policy wonks, hospital administrators and health journos. But here the industry faces another limiting factor: the innovation curve.
Given a healthcare provider’s ethical and legal responsibilities, few can afford to sit on the cutting edge of health tech development. Health technologies need to be proven safe, effective and investment-worthy before they can be implemented by the industry as a whole. However, tech can be leveraged to improve the patient experience in many ways, explored later in this article.
One answer is branding.
Patients expect providers to be able to save their lives. They don’t necessarily expect you to add value to their lives, which represents a potential differentiator. A lifestyle company does just that. It provides a guise that a consumer can live within. It providers a sense of belonging.
But how can a hospital or health system build a distinctive brand, when their products are so similar? What makes your organization more valuable to a healthcare consumer than that one? Step one is to start paying more attention to the image you project to these constituencies. Moreover, branding isn’t just about a logo or tagline. A brand is the sum total of consumer’ experiences with a product or service. You can have a catchy advertising campaign, but one bad experience with a clinician or customer service representative can negate all the money spent on advertising.
Now that the focus in American healthcare is beginning to shift away from institutions and onto consumers, you need to take a hard look at the ways you engage with patients, patients’ families and home caregivers, and their communities at large.
Take a lesson from more traditional consumer-focused business: figure out how you can use marketing channels to improve business outcomes and build patient loyalty.
Devise ways to project positive, patient-centered lifestyle messaging across the same channels that companies in other consumer-facing industries would. Let’s take a look at some of those channels and discuss specific ways they can be used to reach healthcare consumers.
Social media perplexes providers, mainly because of the health privacy risks associated with it. On a public channel, in which information is essentially broadcast and (often permanently, through archiving services and uncontrollable screenshots) retrievable, how do you meet our regulatory requirements to respect and guard patient privacy?
Social media platforms do come with plenty of liability. How would your organization, for example, deal with angry wall posts by a dissatisfied patient or family member? Do you leave them up for transparency’s sake, or take them down? Do they constitute material protected under HIPAA?
Healthcare organizations need to actively (constantly) monitor their social media channels to guard against privacy violations and reputation-damaging content. But there’s also a tremendous upside to maintaining a robust social media presence: Different platforms tend to have disparate audiences, offering a ready-made opportunity for segmenting your brand messaging. There is also the potential for organic reach when using social media enables the propagation of word-of-mouth. It’s also the reality of marketing to today’s healthcare consumers and meeting them where they are.
E-mail is intriguing for use as a patient engagement channel in that it is highly cost-effective, less risky from a patient privacy standpoint and relatively instant. The drawback is that modern consumers are now well-conditioned to ignore e-mail marketing. Many automatically relegate marketing e-mails to the spam or trash folder.
Still, there are ways for hospitals to decrease the chances that their e-mails will end up ignored. Best practices for subject lines, length, clickable links, link position and image usage can all be employed to help e-mails produce the desired response among healthcare consumers.
And there is some evidence that direct e-mail communications between providers and patients could improve outcomes. A Kaiser Permanente-funded study found that a third of chronic care patients who used e-mail to communicate regularly with their providers felt that those regular communications improved their care.
Some startups are now experimenting with “automated empathy” e-mails to help doctors with high patient volumes (for example, surgeons) keep their charges engaged with the healing and recovery process.
These e-mails, timed out to anticipated milestones in the recovery process, are automatically personalized and are linked to a “dashboard” that allows a doctor or clinical staff to monitor patients’ responses and escalate proactive clinical response where appropriate. Such measures could reduce readmissions, save lives and help providers develop an invaluable reputation for safety.
PatientBond offers automated patient behavior change technology, engaging patients with emails, text messages and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) phone calls with messaging customized to a patient’s psychographic profile. Because psychographics pertain to a patient’s values, personality and lifestyle, messages and media address patients’ motivations and communications preferences accordingly.
PatientBond is working with a prestigious New England hospital to reduce readmissions for a specific surgical procedure (certain details are blinded because this effort will be published in an abstract). This hospital dedicated several nurses to patient follow-up post-surgery, and readmission rates – while “good” – could have been improved. PatientBond emails patients pre- and post-surgical discharge education and care instructions with patient response mechanisms (e.g., confirm that an educational video was watched, answer three short surveys questions, etc.).
After three months in a pilot, there have been no readmissions and nurse FTE time dedicated to follow-up has decreased 75%. Moreover, nurses report a higher level of patient satisfaction.
Websites aren’t just billboards and business lead generators. They’re also engagement channels. Nearly half of healthcare consumers today expect as a matter of course to be able to access their care record, communicate with providers, request prescription refills and conduct routine business through their provider’s website. That proportion will only grow now that Millennials and Digital Natives are the largest age cohort in America. If your organization hasn’t invested in ongoing patient portal development, it needs to — now. And it isn’t sufficient to just have a patient portal, you must understand how to make patients aware of it and its benefits to them. Many hospitals have a patient portal with low usage; they have not figured out how to craft the right proposition to help patients see the value in regular utilization. Psychographic insights can help here, too.
Perhaps the most interesting possibility for brand management is direct consumer engagement via text messaging. E-mails and social media posts can be missed if patients are not looking for them. Patient portals are a passive channel. Texts are harder to ignore.
Texting is simple. It’s direct. It’s immediate. And now that it has become a widely adopted technology (92% of American adults own a smartphone, and texting is the number one smartphone-based activity), it’s a safe bet for facilitating doctor-to-patient communications.
Best of all — although lost devices, hackers and over-the-shoulder snoops should always be in the back of any health marketer or provider’s mind before sending a text to a patient — texting probably offers less patient privacy risk than social media. Smartphone users tend to be protective of their devices and keep them close at hand.
Again, this is a capability where PatientBond excels, realizing high response rates to text messaging. Of course, healthcare consumers will need to opt-in to receive any of these communications, but PatientBond also has an opt-in function built into its platform and integrates seamlessly with a hospital’s Electronic Medical/Health record for two-way data retrieval following strict privacy procedures.
Healthcare consumerism must be enabled through tech. And tech should be used to build lifestyle branding.
Healthcare consumers need to understand why your hospital or provider organization offers them the most value-add to their lives. And they need more than business and care-centered communications. Consumers need to hear their peers’ care stories, shared via emotive messaging. They need to be able to offer feedback in the form of their own care stories and healthcare needs. And they need to garner immediate, empathetic response.
In a market environment saturated with similar healthcare products and services, providers need to focus on branding. And they need to use channels that other consumer industries use to spread that messaging.