The Hospital Monopoly Is Gone. The New Imperative? Creating Loyalty

By Jim Somers, chief marketing officer, CipherHealth.

Jim Somers

Healthcare consumerism was already on the rise before the pandemic hit. The provider-patient power differential was already beginning to shift, with more high-deductible health plans being offered and employers shifting the burden of managing healthcare expenses to individual employees. Before COVID-19 entered our shared lexicon, patients were beginning to take a more active role as purchasers and managers of their own care.

This year’s explosion in telehealth, brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, has dramatically upped the ante in terms of competition, enabling budget- and value-minded patients to shop for their care unfettered by geographical restraints. The turn to digital care isn’t one that will be undone after the pandemic, either. Eighty percent of patients say they’re likely to continue utilizing virtual visits with their doctors, even after the pandemic ends.

Providing an ever-more-discerning patient population with a new, vast array of providers has disrupted the longstanding monopoly hospitals held over their local patient populations. The fallout has come in the form of widespread network leakage and lost revenue. By October, in fact, revenue for hospitals in the U.S. was down 9.2% year-over-year. Able to select providers from the comfort of home and with an ever-increasing amount of personal health data at their fingertips, patients have far more freedom in 2021 to choose the provider that works for them.

That means that to compete, traditional providers have had to adapt quickly, training staff on remote care and making telehealth an option for every patient. According to McKinsey, health systems, independent practices, behavioral health providers, and others have reported 50-175x jumps in the number of telehealth visits since the pandemic began.

Having the technology to compete in the telehealth arena won’t be enough, however, for mainstream providers to compete, not to mention recover any lost revenue. Patients often don’t feel the same kind of brand connection or loyalty to hospitals that they might to other products or organizations. To keep patients in the network, we’ll see a new push in 2021 toward marketing, patient experience, and most importantly, loyalty.

Like any for-profit brand, hospitals need to devote significant resources to building “stickiness,” but have traditionally eschewed many of the experience-focused techniques used in other industries. As they endeavor this year to make up lost ground, engagement and personalization at every step of the patient journey will be core to those efforts.

By engaging patients throughout their pre-care and post-care experiences, providers can not only keep patients in-network, but keep them invested in their own care, resulting in better outcomes.

Here are some key steps to building loyalty:

Demand generation for in-person and virtual care

Although nearly all hospitals offer a patient portal solution, portals as a means of engagement remain underutilized, with most patients failing to even register, let alone regularly log on. If patients aren’t tapping into what’s often the most robust source of information and education offered by providers, it’s incumbent upon the providers to bring that information to patients in the ways they want to be reached – often via phone calls, SMS messages, or emails. Doing so can create demand for appointments, not only building loyalty, but improving outcomes, particularly for patients with chronic conditions.

Automated broadcast messaging allows hospitals to send messages out to an entire patient population, letting them know, for example, the importance of maintaining screening or preventive care appointments. More targeted appointments-based messaging brings elements of personalization into interactions, targeting at-risk patients and giving them easy access to the tools needed to schedule visits in the way that makes the most sense for them.

Pre-care outreach

Getting a patient to make an appointment is an important step. Getting them to show up, however, is an entirely different matter. Before the pandemic, no-show rates hovered at around 19%, and reticence around the safety of in-person appointments has only exacerbated the matter. Nurturing patients at this stage, especially during the pandemic, has become a critical lever in the fight for loyalty.

Especially in an environment with mixed modalities of care and the potential for patient confusion, automated outreach to educate patients on the experience they can expect is more important than ever. Given how quickly circumstances can change inside hospitals or doctors offices due to the pandemic, pre-care outreach also offers an opportunity to switch modalities, reschedule, or backfill appointments as needed, driving patient volume and maximizing revenue.

Post-care engagement

Particularly during the current pandemic, it’s imperative that patients’ conditions be monitored after a care interaction, especially if they fall into a high-risk category. By tapping into automated outreach, providers can monitor symptom progression, make sure patients understand discharge or post-care instructions, and ensure they have everything they need in terms of prescriptions or other items to recover successfully.

Demonstrating a commitment to patient well-being well beyond the four walls of the hospital and well past the point of care not only leads to better long-term outcomes, but also dramatically enhances the patient experience.

What comes next

2020 was a transformative year – the telehealth revolution was a shot across the bow for every hospital in the country. The old model of, “this is my local hospital, so that’s where I go for care” is gone forever. And while the mad dash for traditional providers to stand up and scale telehealth capabilities is over, the next push, for patient loyalty, is just nearing its start.

Patient experience at the point of care is no longer enough to attract or even retain patient populations. Loyalty will be won through trust, convenience, and engagement across the care continuum.

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