To attract business, think like a consumer; to keep it, think like a patient

Deb Beaulieu

Deb Beaulieu

If healthcare is indeed a business, what's the proper way to regard your clientele--as customers or patients? According to recent trends and research, it's both.

Given the prevalence today of patients paying partly or completely out-of-pocket for healthcare, one of the key ways practices can draw new business is by offering a good deal. Medical group use of online discount sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial has continued to grow, according to a recent post from Kaiser Health News.

For example, John Muney, head of AMG Medical Group in New York, told KHN that the company's Groupon deals brought more than 1,000 people to AMG's six clinics for cholesterol and blood sugar testing and regular checkups over the course of a year. Most of the new patients, he said, were low-income, uninsured or on high-deductible plans.

The post did not specify how much AMG discounted these services, but most Groupon specials slash regular prices by at least 50 percent. This information relates to another piece of new, somewhat paradoxical, insight into the healthcare consumer mind: Lower-priced health services are often perceived as more important.

This was the conclusion of a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, in which researchers presented two flu shot prices--$25 and $125--to two groups of people. Even though all participants were told that their insurance would pay for the vaccine and that it would be good for individual or public health, participants were "more likely to believe that low price reflects high communal need for the vaccine, while high prices translated as less accessibility and therefore less need," KHN reported.

According to authors Janet Schwartz, a professor in Tulane University's A.B. Freeman School of Business, and colleagues, this finding indicates that alongside cost information, patients need more education about the need for and risks of healthcare services.

While policymakers figure out how to better reach the public with both types of information, physician practices can play a crucial role in helping patients navigate the healthcare path. Physicians and practices might have more success if they turn episodic, deal-seeking patients into long-term patients.

For example, despite AMG's success in drawing new patients to access many primary care-like services, Muney said that the practice converts only 5 percent of these one-time patients into practice members.

To build loyalty, it seems that this is the juncture at which practices must start treating individuals less like consumers and more like patients.

According to James Doulgeris, a healthcare business and marketing strategist at HCP Associates, elements such as personalized customer service, follow-up calls and, of course, more discounts could entice coupon buyers to return.

But the biggest part of this puzzle, if you ask me, is creating a solid relationship with the patient. As earlier, somewhat surprising, research has shown, once patients develop a bond with a physician or practice, they're very reluctant to switch doctors, even to save money.

Reaching that tipping point isn't easy. Low-cost, convenient competition is everywhere. But you don't have to be a retail clinic to provide great service. If you and your staff can prove to your patients that you're looking out for their bodies and bank accounts--which anybody who knows anything about stress realizes are related--then you may just have the opportunity to win those patients for life. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)

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