How can we more powerfully engage healthcare consumers?

June 6, 2018
Sue Spaight Director, Research & Strategy

By meeting their most essential desires

If you understand what people want, you’ll understand how to best market for them.

Following are two strategic imperatives and seven corresponding strategies for how we can all create greater personal relevance and engagement for our healthcare brands by catering to core consumer desires. This Table of Contents provides a jump link to each section within this article. 

Imperative One

  1. We must alleviate the pain of the healthcare experience, becoming more consumer-centric

Supporting Strategies

  1. Become more transparent
  2. Become more convenient
  3. Make consumers feel special and valued

Imperative Two

  1. We must improve the digital engagement experience to be more like retail

Supporting Strategies

  1. Facilitate the most urgent consumer needs by prioritizing better physician search, online scheduling, bill pay and access to health records
  2. Make it easier for consumers to evaluate quality by offering patient reviews and provider quality scores or ratings
  3. Use CRM to engage consumers on their terms
  4. Meet consumers where they already are (mobile)



This week at the Hospital Marketing National conference, Core is participating in a panel discussion on the topic of consumer engagement in healthcare. The topic on the table:

With healthcare becoming more individualized, consumers are demanding marketing that reaches them in ways that are more personally salient. What are they really looking for out of their providers? How do they make the decision on where they spend their healthcare dollars?

Those are some big, important questions. The answers go far beyond digital engagement tactics and mere “personalization”, which, according to this recent study, many consumers actually find creepy and annoying.

Our approach to these questions, as to most marketing challenges, is to start with consumer desires.

We strongly agree with Deloitte on this: “Understanding how health consumers’ behaviors and expectations are transforming—and acting on that transformation to win the hearts and minds of consumers and support them as they navigate the health system—is increasingly a business imperative across the healthcare industry.”​

Strategic Imperative:

We must alleviate the pain of the healthcare experience, becoming more consumer-centric

Healthcare is likely the most complex and anxiety-ridden experience that a consumer must navigate. Our marketing context is the huge amount of angst that we have to get past to even begin to engage consumers. We must understand that context as square one.

Cost, of course, is the elephant in the room – the underlying issue that colors every engagement in varying degrees. The cost of healthcare is now the biggest driver of consumer financial uncertainty, according to Iconoculture. Americans are more acutely worried about it than about costs associated with retirement, college or anything else, based on Ipsos research. That study gives a unique view into the minds of consumers and their concerns about the cost of healthcare, as well as their other perceptions of the healthcare experience. 

What’s more, nearly half (44%) of consumers say they didn’t go to a doctor when they were sick or injured in the last year because of cost, according to a March 2018 poll from NORC at the University of Chicago and the West Health Institute. People are avoiding care, when they need it – and not just a small number of people.

Obviously, the cost of healthcare is a massive, systemic issue that no one system can tackle alone. While we can’t rid consumers of their healthcare pain completely, we must alleviate the pains that we can.

In a study conducted by Change Healthcare, nearly three fourths of healthcare providers said they were giving priority to strategies focused on customer-centricity. The leading drivers of that focus were the shift towards value-based payment, competitive pressures and the need to establish long-term relationships with consumers. Success is being measured in terms of patient satisfaction and readmission rates, among other metrics. This is good news for consumers and providers alike.

Strategy 1:

Become more transparent

In light of the research cited above, it’s not surprising that most consumers want their out-of-pocket healthcare costs to be more predictable (85%) and transparent (82%). Two in five have trouble understanding their bills, or getting answers from their insurance company, per Ipsos.

Solving this is not easy, we know. But consumers have been demanding this for years. Instead of lamenting that transparency is just too hard, we should all be thinking about how we’re going to get it done.

Recent pricing transparency regulations have motivated two-thirds of providers to offer consumer self-service tools like estimators, according to the Change Healthcare research referenced above. Just over half of providers (51%) said they are planning to offer publicly posted prices in the future. (However, price transparency was not a high priority compared to other consumer engagement investments including software solutions, in-person experience investments, and better websites.)

Meanwhile, the truly innovative Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania has been a transparency leader since 2006. Their MyEstimate tool enables patients to find out how much they will owe for the most frequently-performed services. A number of other providers and payers have followed their lead. Geisinger offers some tool development tips that can help other providers get started.


Strategy 2:

Become more convenient

Given the tectonic shift that is happening in healthcare – including the CVS/Aetna merger and giants Amazon and Apple poised to further disrupt – creating convenience is not optional. This article – If your health system can claim this position, you will win – from my Core colleague, Stephanie Hungerford, details why. Convenience is a top driver in consumer choice. Consumers demand it, and they will go elsewhere if we don’t provide it.

In Advisory Board’s report, What Do Consumers Want From Primary Care?six out of the top ten consumer-preferred primary care clinic attributes were related to access and convenience. Nearly 2 in 3 consumers would switch healthcare providers for the ability to get an appointment quickly when they need it. More than half would also switch for the ability to get an appointment at a convenient location. We must all be working on creating the strongest consumer conveniences we possibly can.

Follow the example of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, which is offering consumers not only the ability to see urgent care wait times on its website, but also the ability to make reservations. 

Note that they are called “reservations,” not “appointments.”  This consumer-friendly language is quite intentional and delivers on consumers’ desire for healthcare to be easier and more like retail


Certainly, an important part of becoming more convenient is advancing telehealth in support of your organization’s strategic goals. In an outstanding recent Harvard Business Review article, “What Retail Can Teach Healthcare About Digital Strategy”, Adam Licurse of Brigham Health points out: “For some providers, virtual care is about meeting a perceived and growing consumer need: this is what my patients want and will increasingly expect. Indeed, among its clearest benefits is patient convenience. Improved access is another potential benefit, as telehealth tools free up time for providers to see new and more complex patients in person by efficiently moving more routine visits out of the office.”

Licurse goes on to illuminate the high strategic importance of delivering convenient and virtual care options:

“Healthcare providers, like retailers and other traditionally in-person businesses, need to prepare for a future where technology companies, focused solely on delivering care virtually, increasingly meet the needs of patients more conveniently and efficiently. Providers can either cede market share and volume to these companies, or beat them at their own game by scaling their own virtual care services. Strategic decisions providers make today will determine how ready they will be for a future where patients expect their healthcare to be as seamless as online shopping, if they are to remain loyal.”

Strategy 3:

Make consumers feel special and valued

The factors that customers in general find most valuable and most memorable in their brand experiences are human interaction and being treated special, according to InMoment customer experience research.

The most positive experiences are emotional experiences in which those servicing the consumer:


At our hearts, we all just want to be seen and heard. One of the most fundamental human needs is connection. It’s been proven to have an impact on health. We know it’s not easy, to deliver on human connection day in and day out, in the healthcare setting. It is, nonetheless, imperative.

This seems obvious, right? It should. Yet in healthcare practice, it too often is not the case. Fortunately, most systems now recognize the importance of this and are investing in substantial patient experience efforts to address it. Actually, 82% of providers surveyed by The Beryl Institute have patient experience efforts that are established or well established, while 18% are beginning. If you’re beginning, or in the 1% that hasn’t started yet, the time to address this is now.

The best marketing tactics in the world won’t help us acquire and keep patients if we’re not effectively connecting with them on a human level. Executing this strategy requires training and culture shift, as well as excellent listening skills permeating our healthcare organizations. To make consumers feel special and valued, we must first listen to them.

This is another area in which Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin excels. Maggie Butterfield, director of Patient Amenities and Family Services, shared with us that Children’s caregivers ask patients at the bedside: “What matters most to you today?” That seemingly simple question ensures that caregivers are in touch with every patient’s most essential needs. Additionally, the organization monitors patient and family feedback in real time, by delivering a 12-15 question survey within 24 hours of their care, which provides richer, more actionable feedback. These efforts have contributed to a dramatic improvement in HCAHPS scores.

Columbus Community Hospital, one of our clients, also prioritizes listening to patients, who frequently comment that they feel the warmth when they enter the facility. They feel seen and heard, and that they belong. They are highly loyal, and often come visit even when they are well, to meet friends for a cup of coffee or a locally-sourced meal. It’s an extraordinary experience, that starts with culture driven from the top. Even the CEO and Vice President of Patient Care Services routinely make rounds to listen to patients.


We must improve the digital engagement experience to be more like retail

Consumers are demanding better experiences from us. If we won’t deliver them, someone else soon will. Recent consumer research supports this point of view, concluding that consumers do, in fact, want the healthcare digital experience to be more like retail.

It’s about developing the right blend of excellent in-person service, as discussed above, and digital convenience, for which our recommendations are below.

Strategy 1:

Facilitate the most urgent consumer needs by prioritizing better physician search, online scheduling, bill pay and access to health records.

Overall, healthcare is simply not meeting consumer expectations for what digital engagement is like in 2018. Consider these statistics.

Certainly there are healthcare providers doing it right. For example, Advocate Aurora (until recently, Aurora Health Care) has built a large and talented digital engagement team that is highly focused on improving the consumer/digital user experience. This is reflected in numerous features of their digital experience, including robust provider search, provider ratings, urgent care reservations and video visits. 

Strategy 2:

Make it easier for consumers to evaluate quality by offering patient reviews and provider quality scores or ratings

More than half of healthcare consumers have a specific desire for patient reviews (56%) and provider quality scores (53%), according to the excellent Kyruus 2017 Patient Access Journey Report.

Yet, in our experience, many healthcare systems and providers still balk at the suggestion to do this, often driven by physician resistance to this change. We can begin overcoming that resistance by demonstrating both the consumer demand for it and provider successes.

Cleveland Clinic addresses both of these needs by posting patient ratings of physicians alongside both positive and negative comments, gleaned from patient surveys, on its website. Physicians are publicly rated on how well they listen and explain, their level of courtesy, respect and concern, how well they know the patient’s medical history, the time they spent with the patient, and overall. This is a tremendous service to consumers, making it much easier to effectively make choices.

Strategy 3:

Use CRM to engage consumers on their terms

CRM is not just about “push” marketing. It’s about serving customer needs with a customer-centric approach to relationship management. CRM strategy must be built with an understanding of, and empathy for, consumer behavior and desires.

As Healthgrades notes in its white paper, The Future of CRM, the rise in consumerism and consumer-centricity will affect how marketers use CRM.

“Currently most CRM systems are focused on visual channel engagement. Because patients are already looking for greater personalization, marketers need to segment people out of larger groups. Targeting a ZIP code or even a household is now less vital than using data to pinpoint individual consumers, such as people who have a specific health condition or special interest in a type of care.”

Advocate Aurora Health (formerly Aurora Health Care), for example, creates population health emails that target patients who are due for screenings, and campaigns for patients who have seen a specialist but don’t have a primary care physician. Via a patient survey, the system learned that 60% of respondents were interested in receiving email with relevant health information, and 77% wanted to select the specific types of health information and content that they would receive.

Healthcare consumers are hungry for health and wellness information and advice. A growing number of consumers view being physically healthy and free from illness as one of their highest priorities, according to Iconoculture. In general, people fare poorly in preventive health behaviors like screenings, especially later in life. While many health systems continually preach quality of care, what consumers really care about is quality of life. And, email is the preferred method for engaging with healthcare providers among two-thirds of consumers.

CRM presents the opportunity to truly engage with patients in between care episodes, and leverage the appeal of wellness to activate health behavior. Targeted, personalized communications can encourage better decision making throughout the patient journey. That is how you can truly build a bond and help people live healthier lives to earn patient loyalty.

“It’s an evolution from thinking about a service line to more of a consumer-centric approach,” said Healthgrades. Put the consumer at the center of everything, rather than starting with an internal focus.”

Strategy 4:

Meet consumers where they already are (mobile)

Mobile is another strategic area in which many healthcare providers can benefit from increased customer-centricity.

Many healthcare providers continue to be disappointed with use of their patient portals; studies cite patient portal usage in the 10% to 30% range. Yet the reason for their low adoption is that they are highly inconvenient, requiring yet another login, and often offer a very poor user experience. Providers are often fighting an uphill battle in trying to drive increased portal adoption and consistent portal use rather than meeting customers where they already are.

As highlighted recently in Becker’s Hospital Review: “Successful engagement strategies will meet patients where they are – using technologies such as smartphones to deliver vital information to help them improve their health and get the care they need. Patients want the convenience of scheduling appointments online, receiving important text reminders, and obtaining lab results on their cellphones without the barrier of a portal login.”

This means offering patients personalized mobile communications tailored to their needs and preferences. “For example, a well patient or episodic patient can be reached with just-in-time appointment reminders, check-ins, surveys, and post-care summaries sent via text. On the other hand, a chronic patient with diabetes will receive messages and reminders to come in for three-month blood work.”

Among consumers surveyed by Change Healthcare, just 18% preferred to interact with their providers via mobile app; this preference is much higher among Millennials, at 34%. (A well-designed, ‘mobile first’ website is generally more desirable among consumers than another mobile app, unless that app has a specific and strong utility.)  

One third of providers surveyed in the Change Healthcare study said that mobile apps were extremely or very successful in engaging consumers. Yet just 13% of providers surveyed were investing in mobile apps.

When it comes to text messaging, a solid 40% of consumers stated this as a preferred channel, while 29% of providers were investing in text messaging. It should definitely be a part of our customer engagement plans.

Remember the importance of shared values and emotional connection

Our recommended strategies on this topic are intentionally focused on some of the larger issues in customer engagement, rather than only marketing engagement tactics and tools. At the same time, we’d be remiss to omit the fact that while meeting these strategic imperatives, healthcare brands still need to demonstrate that they have a soul.

We still need to “start with why.”

We still need to connect with consumers based on the powerful and emotional values that we share with them.

Emotion will always be what ultimately drives consumer decision making.

Value alignment is a significant factor in where consumers put their money.

More than half of Millennials, Generation Xers and Boomers alike feel it is important that the brands they support invest in meaningful causes, according to InMoment. In healthcare, your brand likely is a meaningful cause. We’re often deeply moved by the stories our healthcare clients tell us in brand workshops about their “why.”

To quote Simon Sinek: “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” That’s as true in healthcare as in any other business.

As we strive to become more customer-centric, convenient and connected, we still need to build strong brands.




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