Providers want to make healthcare consumer-friendly—but they struggle to implement it

Female-Patient-Doctor-Women's-Health-Credit:Getty/monkeybusinessimages
Providers want to be more consumer-centric but may struggle to put new programs in place, according to a new report. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

Providers know they need to adopt a consumer-centric approach to care. But it turns out that's much easier said than done. 

In a new report, Kaufman Hall said it surveyed 425 people at 200 healthcare organizations and found that just 8% are ahead of the curve on consumerism, outlining a plan to become more consumer-centric early and modifying it regularly as perspectives change. 

When we talk about consumerism in healthcare, it’s basically the idea that patients can act more like customers who can shop around for healthcare options—taking into account cost, quality or personal preference—just like they would for anything else they buy. 

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If a patient doesn’t like the price they get at one office, they can take easily their business down the street.

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While healthcare providers have been offering a patchwork of options to increase consumerism like price transparency tools or shifting drug discounts directly to consumers, the overall movement to consumerism more broadly among traditional providers has been slow-going.

Twenty-three percent indicated they are taking a "thoughtful" path to a consumer-centric approach and are piloting new initiatives to further that goal, according to the report. 

But most hospitals and health systems included in the survey fall more in the middle, with 52% saying that their consumer-driven projects have been more reactionary and focused on a specific need, instead of part of an overall plan to become more consumer-centric.

"Providers are still finding this very difficult, to orient around the consumer," Dan Clarin, a senior vice president in Kaufman Hall's strategic and financial planning practice, told FierceHealthcare in an interview. "Folks are finding it really hard to understand the consumer." 

The remaining 17% are in a "wait and see" mode, and hoping that the market will outline what strategies are needed and how to implement them before testing any projects. 

However, though many providers have just dipped a toe into consumerist projects, they're aware that this should be a focus moving forward. Ninety percent of respondents said that improving the consumer experience is a key priority, and two-thirds building and enhancing digital tools for that purpose was a major goal. 

Clarin said that the level of interest in this issue is growing, and in comparison to past years of the survey, providers have taken steps to become more consumer-centric. But the complexity of healthcare makes significant progress a unique challenge compared to other businesses. 

For example, if someone is going to the store to buy milk, it's not necessarily a purchase that's based fully on need, he said. But patients rarely seek out healthcare services because they want to, and that poses a different "consumer calculus," he said. 

"That is unique to healthcare," Clarin said. "We're all kind of going through the process of learning what that [equation] is." 

RELATED: ONC's Donald Rucker—Access to health information will make patients better healthcare consumers 

As more disruptors eye the healthcare market, a focus on consumerism will become even more important, he said. The joint venture between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase is already ahead of the curve, for example, he said, as companies like Amazon are entering the market with far more built-in knowledge on how consumers think. 

"In terms of what it will take to succeed in healthcare going forward, a lot of the nontraditional providers are perhaps in a better position," Clarin said. 

Another wrinkle is pricing.

Patients have traditionally had limited out-of-pocket exposure to the costs of care, and moving forward Clarin said he sees communicating better with them on prices as a major focus. It's especially crucial to get a better picture of their expectations in this area, he said. 

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