Engagement + Experience = Patient Loyalty in Health Systems
The concept of loyalty in healthcare started popping up in niche publications around 2016 and soon gained traction in more mainstream healthcare media, including JAMA and Advisory Board. Most articles suggested looking at loyalty programs in direct-to-consumer industries as guideposts.
Surprisingly, the idea of patient loyalty has largely remained there—in concept and in print. Yet health systems are uniquely positioned—like no other healthcare sector and, frankly, like no other business sector—to create and foster relationships over the entire span of a person’s life. Consider: Provider systems can deliver everything from prenatal care to hospice care. Yet, according to NRC Health, more than one-third of consumers are indifferent to health system brands; in fact, that statistic rose from 31% in 2018 to 36% in 2021. And while that’s a disappointing statistic, it also represents an opportunity for motivated providers.
According to Accenture’s COVID-19 Consumer Health Experience Survey 2020, data “indicates that those health systems that evolve to meet new consumer experience needs can expedite financial recovery and capture patients from competitors, potentially increasing their revenues by 5% to 10% pre-COVID levels within 12 months.” That’s hundreds of millions of dollars in additional annual revenues. Furthermore, the same survey reports, “two-thirds of patients are likely or highly likely to switch to a new health system if their expectations are not met.”
As a healthcare consumer who’s also worked 25 years in healthcare, one of the biggest potential benefits of meeting this moment—for both health systems and consumers—is the centralization of care. In short, when a health system engenders brand loyalty, the patient experience is uninterrupted. Plus, medical records are not fractionalized, relieving patients and physicians from connecting the dots between care inside and outside of the system.
Why loyalty, and why now?
Usually, when people hear the word loyalty, they think of points and rewards generated by frequency and transactions. That idea is aligned with traditional loyalty programs, which help ensure repeat business by recognizing and incenting their best customers, letting them know they’re valued and part of something larger. Certainly, in all sectors of healthcare, the ideal outcome is a healthy population. But if that’s the goal of your loyalty program, healthy people won’t be frequently engaging with your system. Instead, lifelong relationships with your patients, not frequency, should be your ultimate goal.
That’s why, rather than a loyalty program, health systems are best served by a full-blown loyalty strategy. A colleague nicely outlined the difference between a loyalty program and a loyalty strategy last year in a blog (“Loyalty strategy or program: What’s right for your brand?” by Nina Rose). Essentially, she argues, a loyalty program works well for companies that focus on transactions, but organizations that aim to serve myriad aspects of their customers’ lives need loyalty strategies. Regardless of your loyalty approach, data helps a company glean customer preferences, understand customer needs, determine preferred channels in order to deliver customer-centric engagement and create relevant, personalized experiences.
Loyalty doesn’t happen overnight. It builds. It evolves. And its core is a deep understanding of your patients. Data is the key.
Healthcare consumer needs
In the Affordable Care Act landscape, where the transition from volume-based to value-based care became reality, healthcare consumers have shifted:
We want a streamlined experience.
We shop for providers and read reviews.
We look for cost transparency and convenience—with the latter being the second-most-important decision driver.
We want a digitally connected healthcare experience.
We want our private data to be safe.
Every healthcare consumer wants to feel valued, heard, and understood as more than a number. As medicine continues to make extraordinary advances, personalization affects everything from communications and curated content to genomic-driven healthcare interventions and solutions. At no other time in healthcare has personalization been as doable as it is today.
Consider launching these five initiatives now so your health system can start creating more meaningful, loyal patient relationships.
1. Get to know your patients:
Learn about your customers’ needs. Data is an incredibly powerful tool that can enable your health system to engage at a personal level.
Conduct post-visit surveys to glean important insights about what your organization has done right and what you can improve.
Understand environmental shifts—deferment of care has caused many healthcare consumers to disengage, but that doesn’t mean their ailments, large or small, have disappeared. How can you make them feel comfortable reengaging in their health?
Deepen your customer understanding to help create look-alike audiences for acquisition/growth initiatives.
2. Communicate with your patients:
Begin dialogues with your customers that go beyond appointment scheduling and reminders. Send emails or post news on your social channels about topics, such as health concerns, pollen levels in allergy season, and back-to-school checkups.
Deliver more personalized communications focused on specific health concerns or conditions. Yes, HIPAA requires a patient opt-in to receive more personally relevant content. But your patient receiving treatment for HER2-positive breast cancer probably doesn’t want to receive an email about what to do in the case of an enlarged prostate. Personalization is important.
Recognize families when they complete their annual preventative care. Thank them for letting your family of care providers care for their family.
3. Create a digitally connected home base:
Design a HIPAA-compliant digital “dashboard” that offers a connected, centralized experience the minute your customer lands at your website. This interface should put all the conveniences of curated care at the user’s fingertips and should enable access to:
o Electronic medical/healthcare records
o Provider communications
o Appointment scheduling/sign-up for appointment reminders
o A telehealth platform
o Targeted content
o A personalized prevention checklist (based on age, demographics, and risk factors)
o Sticky widgets driven by AI or algorithmic decisioning to enable a patient to lessen risk factors and find the right specialist
4. Offer moments of surprise and delight to engage patients and show them you care:
Hold yoga in a park or at one of your facilities.
Offer celebrity chef-led healthy-cooking classes.
Provide special maternity gifts to new moms.
Gift a curated cancer poetry collection upon a patient’s first chemo or radiation visit.
Send an anniversary gift to thank patients for trusting you to provide care.
Offer congratulations for completing their prevention checklist.
Provide free coffee and/or lunch in the cafeteria for parents who regularly bring in their children for disease management.
Offer valet parking to patients who might need it most.
Host a farmer’s market at your hospital campus and share healthy recipes.
5. Consider forging partnerships with brands aligned with your mission and values.
Strategic partnerships can extend brand value, deepen brand loyalty, and aggregate value throughout the customer journey. Perhaps most importantly, creating a wellness ecosystem of like-minded brands is a commitment to improved community health. One example might be a partnership among a health system, a fitness center, and a natural/organic grocer. During the pandemic, for example, the health system may have offered vaccinations at their partners’ locations to broaden access.
The evolution of the modern healthcare consumer was well underway prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 accelerated the demand for a new patient experience. When you consider the possibility of speeding up financial recovery as predicted by Accenture’s survey results, and flip the decrease in health system affinity in your favor—now is the ideal time to drive engagement and experience within a loyalty strategy. If your health system doesn’t, another one likely will.
Check out our recent whitepaper: Loyalty in Health Care: The Next Big Thing
Tess MacGibbon is vice president of Growth Marketing at The Lacek Group, a Minneapolis-based, data-driven loyalty, experience and customer engagement agency that has been delivering personalization at scale for its world-class clients for more than 30 years. The Lacek Group is an Ogilvy company.