Tools of the trade: Attracting and keeping patients in a more fluid market

Not only have patient communication preferences drifted during the pandemic, but the very nature of the patient-provider relationship is changing.

Just when it seemed like things were getting back to some semblance of normalcy this summer, life has gone and tossed a tricky curveball at healthcare organizations. After a year and a half of titanic struggle against the COVID pandemic, relief and recovery seemed all but assured. Cases are falling, total vaccinations are climbing, and the country came within inches of reaching President Joe Biden’s goal of inoculating 70 percent of American adults by Independence Day.

At the same time, providers continue to see encouraging signs of regained momentum as patients feel safe returning for care, schedules are fuller, and revenues ascend. Hospitals and health systems began to report positive financial gains in May due to increased patient volumes and hospital revenues and margins, according to a Kaufman Hall report.

So, what could possibly cast a shadow over healthcare providers’ anticipated successful comeback in 2021? In short, the rules have changed and the goalposts have been moved. The pandemic fast-tracked a series of continental plate-sized societal shifts, most of which were already in progress. Technology, communication, and patient behavior evolved during the pandemic to such a degree that the healthcare world we left in March 2020 is not the same one we returned to 18 months later.

Though the lightspeed development of the COVID vaccines was nothing short of miraculous, it isn’t so much that technology sprinted ahead during the pandemic as it is that we adapted how we applied existing innovation. Virtual health predated the virus, but providers only began marketing telehealth service to the masses when the virus made it unsafe for in-office care. Now, telehealth is a viable post-pandemic care option for patients and providers.

Similarly, there’s nothing particularly different about text messaging technology. You still send a text to someone the same way you did two years ago. What is new is that consumer trends have substantially enlarged who we text back and forth within everyday usage. A wide segment of society now uses real-time texting for everything from catching a ride on Uber, to confirming a hotel booking, to checking the status of an Amazon order. What’s also different now is that, increasingly, patients want to be able to benefit from the speed, accessibility, and convenience of texting their providers. Nearly 80 percent of patients want to be able to receive texts from their providers and almost 75 percent want to be able to send texts to providers.

Not only have patient communication preferences drifted during the pandemic, but the very nature of the patient-provider relationship is changing. Today’s patients—both young and old— are more likely than ever to view their healthcare options through the lens of a consumer. That is to say they no longer feel obligated to stay with providers who don’t deliver a satisfying, digitally connected care experience. A 2021 survey of patient communication preferences found 64 percent of those under 50 and 33 percent of those 50 and up are willing to switch to providers with an option for modern digital communication methods like texting. Providers will need to look to patient engagement solutions to match trending patient predilections and expectations in order to competitively retain and attract patients.

In a more consumer-charged space, patients expect their providers to engage them with the same well-accepted tools and techniques that retailers and other B2C companies employ. For acquisition purposes, the patient journey in 2021 effectively begins when individuals hop on a laptop or smartphone to search for potential providers. A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine revealed that “convenience and access” trump reputation when patients over 50 considered prospective providers. These tools include, but are not limited to, the following:

Organization website: Does the provider offer a vibrant, modern web page filled with useful information that showcases their services?

Patient portal: Can patients easily sign in to the provider’s portal to access lab results and other pertinent patient health data?

Text messaging: Can patients receive automated texts for things like appointment reminders, pre-visit directions, and post-care follow-up instructions and patient education? Does the provider offer real-time two-way text messaging so patients can ask questions, get clarification, or reschedule without making a call?

Digital intake: Can patients fill out forms electronically at their own convenience prior to an appointment rather than completing annoying paper forms at check-in?

Streamlined appointment workflow: Does the provider have an informative and easy-to-follow process to guide patients through every point of their healthcare journey in a way that minimizes hassles and leads to a positive patient experience?

Healthcare organizations can avoid the potential pitfalls of greater patient fluidity in a more consumer-driven market by reassessing the technology, tools, and practices they employ to engage with patients. Today’s patients have higher expectations and communication standards. Providers can meet this challenge and energize their acquisition and retention efforts by adopting more effective and efficient digital communication to meet patients where they are.

About The Author

Josh Weiner is the CEO of SR Health by Solutionreach. He joined Solutionreach from Summit Partners, a leading global growth equity firm. Through his work with Summit Partners, Josh served on the Solutionreach board of directors for three years. Before Summit Partners, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Josh is a graduate of Stanford University and resides in Salt Lake City with his wife and two children. Josh and his family spend as much time as possible exploring the natural wonders of Utah's mountains and deserts. Connect with him on LinkedIn @joshfweiner.