The healthcare industry is the fifth biggest in the United States, contributing more than $1.2 trillion to the Gross Domestic Product. But according to the Siegal+Gale Global Simplicity Index, healthcare ranks dead last out of 25 industries in the United States for simplicity of experience. Whether it’s interminable wait times, never-ending stacks of paper forms to complete, confounding language, or overly complex insurance plans, the healthcare industry has become one that U.S. consumers love to hate.
As customer experience continues to evolve as the last true competitive differentiator in most industries, it stands to reason that the experience must improve in healthcare in order for the existing players to survive.
In the first of a three-part series, I interview Geeta Wilson, the founder and CEO of Consumer Society, an early-stage tech and experience design company building an enterprise experience management technology platform to connect all of the major industry players – insurance companies, healthcare professionals and consumers. The discussion centers around the idea to change the industry’s nomenclature from “patients” to “consumers” and why that is critical to improving the overall healthcare experience. Part 2 will look at the digital health consumer, and part 3 will examine the aging population and the resulting changes in demand for a healthcare experience.
Dan Gingiss: What does it mean to be a consumer today?
Geeta Wilson: Today’s consumers have greater discernment, are more technologically savvy and have elevated expectations. Consumers expect to have agency in making critical decisions, secure help when required and be able to ultimately devise, dictate and realize their own consumer experience. This means being able to research decisions on their own terms, having information available at their fingertips across devices and channels that is current, consistent and contextualized.
Consumers are more knowledgeable than ever before and as such have little time for experiences that are sub-par. Often companies misjudge the value of a consumer’s time, failing to understand that next to money, time is at the top of their priority list.
It’s been more than 20 years since the term “experience economy” was first coined in a 1998 article by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. Today’s customer experience is immersive and intended to evoke a sensory or emotional connection. No two people have exactly the same experience because it’s inherently personal and interactive. Companies do not compete today only on products, pricing and service delivery; they fundamentally compete on the experience provided, and those who create an emotional connection with consumers are the ones who win.
Gingiss: Why make the distinction between consumers and patients?
Wilson: At Consumer Society, we strongly believe that the language we use matters; it influences how we see, understand and interact with an individual, and ultimately influences how we treat that person. The term “patient” has historically evoked the picture of a person in some form of pain who suffers in (patient) silence. Etymologically as it moved from its Latin roots to the old French and middle English in the late 1800’s, it carried the same meaning of accepting or tolerating delays, problems or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. Synonyms associated with the word patient are “forbearing, uncomplaining, tolerant, long-suffering and resigned.”
This historical understanding of the term “patient” seems paradoxically at odds with today’s efficient, technologically savvy, experience-elevated consumer. It also begs the question, to what extent have organizations that deliver on health unintentionally eroded or misconstrued the experience by seeing an individual as a condition and not a person – a patient instead of a consumer? Could it be that in seeing someone as a patient we have created an unconscious treatment bias loop that nurtures a “victim” mindset and a passive approach to health?
The debate over using consumer vs. patient has mostly resided within academia for the last 20-plus years, with concerns tied to the patient relationship becoming commoditized – treating individuals as objects or goods, thereby reducing the compassion and care extended to those who are sick or experiencing a health event. It’s time to change the term – and our thinking – to a consumer mindset. Today’s consumer is squarely in control and demands to have their elevated expectations met or exceeded. Consumers outside of healthcare largely have a better experience than “patients” in the healthcare system today due to the shift and focus articulated by Gilmore and Pine toward the experience economy. Yet healthcare still produces woefully lacking experiences and remains behind other industries.
Gingiss: What experience do consumers want in healthcare?
Wilson: According to the 2019 Consumerization of Healthcare Study by Econsultancy and Adobe, the healthcare industry – both insurance companies and medical providers – ranked second-lowest in terms of being fast to respond and offering choices for communications. In addition, 75% of consumers stated they wanted the same experience in healthcare that they get from other industries.
Some of the basic expectations that are lacking in health care include price transparency, price consistency, ability to understand the product coverage and benefits, bill payments and help with getting simple tasks completed. Consumers are looking for highly personalized, simple and connected experiences that place them squarely in charge and make them feel empowered. They want to be heard, understood and accompanied by friends, family and healthcare experts as they traverse their health journey – all while receiving the highest levels of quality care.
Gingiss: What is preventing healthcare providers from providing this experience today?
Wilson: Multiple factors affect the customer experience in healthcare today. A foundational issue is the lack of trust and transparency between each of the stakeholders. Patients/consumers increasingly do not trust doctors or health insurers; they want to know that they are in the best clinical hands possible and that insurers will cover the costs for their treatments. But insurers do not trust doctors and providers to administer necessary treatments to consumers and therefore place a huge administrative burden on providers to ensure that the right quality controls are in place. Doctors in turn do not trust health insurers to reimburse them correctly and pay them on time.
In addition, there is a shortage of clinicians, both doctors and nurses, and doctors are dropping out of the profession at alarming rates due to burnout as they spend less time doing what they love the most – spending time with consumers and bringing them back to health – and more time being bogged down in administrative paperwork and convoluted reimbursement processes.
There is also the lack of interoperability between each of the stakeholders where systems, processes and data do not talk to each other to create integrated, fluid and reliable workflows. This is due to decades-old legacy systems and the fragmentation of electronic health records, preventing portability and visibility between entities. Consumers and doctors rarely have all of the appropriate data in one place.
Outdated regulatory and compliance policies that differ by state also impose unnecessary administrative burdens on providers and insurers, an obsolete patient view and an antiquated perception of what privacy really means for today’s consumers.
Add to all of this the growing number of seniors with chronic conditions who are living longer, are more socially isolated and have a larger wealth disparity among them, and the industry is unable to meet the demands of this large portion of the population.
Gingiss: Will consumerism in health really have that much of an impact?
Wilson: As we look at the strides that have been made with other industries, the shift from the transactional exchange of goods to a more deeply relational experience with the consumer at the center is a big key to success. Consumer expectations are just as high in other industries today, but those industries are much further along than healthcare. For example, in another highly regulated industry – finance and retail banking – there has been an evolution of personalized banking moving from transactional ATMs and teller services to digitized self-service and online banking experiences.
The priority is to get really good at solving consumer problems and not just create another digital solution or revamp a hospital waiting room with a fresh coat of paint. Real impact that is efficient and engaging is immersed in consumer data and tackles problems through discovery and rapid experimentation. The healthcare industry must delve beyond the surface and put consumers squarely in charge of their own health.
Gingiss: How can healthcare today become more consumer oriented?
Wilson: Our first priority is to build trust with consumers and providers. We can begin by stop using the term “patient” in any and all contexts and replace with the words “health consumer” and if that is too difficult, then just the word “person.”
What healthcare is in dire need of is massive simplicity, starting with deep customer empathy. We have to see, feel and think through the consumer problems and not just throw another digital solution in the mix. There is a preponderance of siloed point solutions – digital health apps, wearables and devices – that are vying for the consumers attention and could just be adding more “noise” to an already “noisy” industry. We have to get better at interrogating the experience in healthcare and understanding consumer behavior and the key jobs to be done. Go deeper into the human need trying to be fulfilled and move beyond the norm of incremental solutions.
Secondly, we need to look at how decisions are made and explore the “why” behind them by examining the data and information that are foremost on both consumers’ and leaders’ minds that inform their decisions.
Finally, intellectual honesty is vitally needed. It is too early for any one company to have bragging rights as the next best health experiences are yet to be created. Despite the industry investing significantly in CX, we have yet to move the needle, as demonstrated by the Siegal+Gale Global Simplicity Index remaining unchanged for the last six years.
It’s time to bring the healthcare industry on par with others industries and measure its collective impact upon consumers.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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