Hospital Impact: 3 keys to giving healthcare consumers what they want

Doctor patient
Jonathan H. Burroughs

Skeptics of healthcare consumerism make many excellent points, including the impossibility of comparing hospital prices while driving to the emergency room. Despite the rising number of people with high-deductible health plans, the majority of consumers are confused by what it means to have “skin the game,” or manage their medical-related expenses. According to one survey by Algeus, 66 percent of respondents said that managing their out-of-pocket costs was the most challenging part of overseeing their health care.  

Yet, despite the challenges of turning healthcare into a “shoppable” service, it is already happening due, in part, to the emergence of retail health and digital devices. After growing by 445 percent between 2006 and 2014, the number of retail health clinics is expected to nearly double by 2017, according to research from Accenture. In addition to mortar-and-brick clinics, online storefronts are emerging, such as the second opinion service Best Doctors Inc. At the same time, virtual Amazon-like interactions are becoming ubiquitous in almost every area of life, from banking to education. 

As more patients embrace retail health and online experiences, many hospitals and physician practices are taking steps to give their patients the type of consumer-oriented experience they’re coming to expect.  

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As they think about consumerism, providers are embracing three tenets of retailers the world over: convenience, transparency and customer service:

Convenience. Taking cues from retail, many physician practices are working to extend office hours, reduce office waiting times and offer same-day appointments.

Meanwhile, hospitals and health systems are using a variety of strategies to make it easier for patients to access services in a timely manner. Some are opening free-standing urgent care and emergency departments in convenient locations so patients don’t have to drive all the way to the main hospital facility.

SCL Health is adding small community hospitals--or micro-hospitals--in neighborhoods around its urban and suburban service area. These eight-bed hospitals offer a full-range of services but on a small scale. “They’re also priced less than a full-service hospital emergency center or inpatient facility, so it’s sort of a middle price point,” president and CEO Michael Slubowski told Hospitals & Health Networks.

A number of health systems are affiliating with retail clinics in hopes of gaining downstream volumes. These partnerships include Trinity Health and Walgreens and Kaiser Permanente and Target, as the Accenture report notes. Other health systems are building their own retail complexes. For example, Hackensack Meridian Health recently opened a retail health village, called Meridian Health Village, that brings numerous medical and wellness services under one roof, including an urgent care clinic, imaging, a fitness center, a pharmacy and numerous physician specialties.

Extending the convenience continuum to patients’ homes, many providers are experimenting with e-visits, telehealth monitoring and other virtual care. Mercy’s Virtual Care Hospital has taken this concept to the extreme. It is the world’s first bedless hospital dedicated entirely to care outside its walls. More than 300 clinicians electronically monitor patients at home and in ICUs at the Catholic health system’s traditional hospitals, according to the organization.

Transparency. Comparing quality and price across healthcare providers is still an evolving science. But many providers are making efforts to be as transparent as possible without confusing patients. For example, patients at Pittsburgh’s St. Clair Hospital can access an online tool that allows them to get an out-of-pocket estimate for 105 different services. The estimate factors in the patient’s specific insurance benefits and deductible status, according to a Healthcare Financial Management Association article.

In addition to giving price estimates, Spectrum Health makes its quality data available on its website. The health system currently posts quality reports on nine conditions and procedures, including breast cancer and hip and knee replacement. Each report explains in simple terms how Spectrum Health compares to other providers on important quality metrics.

Customer service. To identify ways to help improve the patient experience, many hospitals have patient and family advisory councils.

At LifePoint Health, members of these councils advise leaders on areas of improvement, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.  They’ve also helped the health system develop a patient portal, worked on patient education materials, and advised on the layout and design of a new hospital.

Some providers are investing in training to help clinicians build empathy and communication skills. For instance, Kansas University Medical Center gave physicians emotional intelligence training, notes the HFMA. In another example, Twin Rivers Regional Medical Center saw its patient satisfaction scores increase 33 percent after implementing a program that ensures nurses dedicate time to talk to inpatients about their greatest concerns, an HFMA article explains.

Different customers, different approaches

Many healthcare providers are still feeling their way around this new retail, consumer-oriented landscape. While the general retail tenets described above are a good place to start, providers will need more detailed information on their patients to design effective and successful strategies. The use of data analytics could be helpful in this exercise. Press Ganey recommends segmenting patients by shared attributes (for example, age, condition, and service line) and then digging deeper into what each of these segments values. This could lead to breakthrough ideas for distinguishing a healthcare provider’s services.

Jonathan H. Burroughs, MD, MBA, FACHE, FAAPL is a certified physician executive and a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives and the American Association for Physician Leadership. He is president and CEO of The Burroughs Healthcare Consulting Network and works with some of the nation's top healthcare consulting organizations to provide "best practice" solutions and training to healthcare organizations.