“Digital strategy” is the phrase of the moment in healthcare. That’s no surprise, with 95 percent of Americans owning a cell phone, 88 percent using the internet, and 72 percent using services of the digital economy. Yet the focus of a truly successful digital strategy transcends what we usually think of as digital.
Because of healthcare’s roots in face-to-face interactions, and because of the rapidly changing nature of digital connectivity and capabilities, hospitals and health systems are still working to define exactly what their digital strategy should comprise. The most often discussed digital capabilities include:
- Online transactions such as paying bills, scheduling appointments, and refilling prescriptions
- Consumer access to medical records, including viewing, downloading, and requesting changes
- Communication with providers by email and direct messaging
- Virtual visits for routine conditions through phone, video conferencing, or messaging
- Remote monitoring and support for chronic conditions such as asthma, behavioral health, and COPD
- Virtual health assistants, for example, apps to promote exercise and better nutrition
As important as these tools are, their true value lies in being part of a broader effort to meet consumers’ changing needs and expectations.
Take access to care, a top priority for healthcare consumers. Digital tools are a critical part of contemporary accessibility—some examples include online patient portals, messaging between patients and providers, and virtual visits. However, a high-access strategy also involves offering a range of physical access points, including retail clinics, urgent care centers, and freestanding imaging sites. Access also includes service considerations, such as extended hours and same-day appointments. Developing an access strategy that integrates the right mix of physical, digital, and other service components is an enormously complex undertaking that demands a deep understanding of consumers—their demographics, health status, utilization patterns, expectations, and attitudes.
Experience is another high priority for healthcare consumers. Here, too, digital tools play a critical role. Increasingly, today’s healthcare consumers expect a digital experience, such as online bill paying, online access to test results, and the ability to share health data from wearables with providers. In fact, 59 percent of consumers surveyed by Salesforce said they would choose a primary care physician who offers such services over one who does not.
However, digital tools are intertwined with people, processes, and policies when it comes to providing solutions to long-time challenges to consumer experience, such as confusing billing processes, long wait times, abbreviated physician visits, and a lack of accurate and transparent price estimates. To improve the consumer experience requires understanding the consumer experience. That means mapping that experience in the broadest sense—from the first twinge of pain through post-treatment follow-up—for various types of interactions and different types of consumers based on health condition, lifestyle, age, and other characteristics. Only with that understanding can an organization build the specific structures, processes, and tools to improve those experiences.
Once they have started down the path toward a new level of consumer satisfaction, hospitals and health systems will have to execute to the very high standards that consumers have come to expect in a world of one-second web searches, same-day online order delivery, and 24-hour drive-through restaurants. An urgent care center with protracted registration or a difficult-to-navigate online payment process will be especially unwelcome against these standards.
On the other end of the spectrum, hospitals and health systems will need to be more creative and innovative than ever, both in how they tap into the consumer perspective and how that understanding translates into innovative products and services. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos points out that even when consumers appear to be satisfied, companies need to dig deeper. “Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.”
The most successful digital companies in the world pin their success to customer understanding. When Google launched, its guiding principle was: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” Bezos has said Amazon’s mission is to be “earth’s most customer-centric company.” Healthcare organizations, with their dedication to the health of the communities they serve, should find it natural to adopt this consumer-first philosophy in their digital strategies, and in all their efforts to meet consumer needs.
Ultimately, when we say “digital strategy,” what we really mean is “satisfying consumers.”