Taking the Pulse of Customer Service

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
Can healthcare move past industry restrictions and age-old practices to engage with customers in the new omnichannel environment?

Cutthroat competition and increased choice have inflated customers' expectations of good service. Today's customers won't think twice about stopping doing business with an organization that doesn't provide them the level of service they expect.

This empowerment means that customers also presume the best from their health providers and health insurance companies. While changing a health insurer or switching to another doctor isn't as easy as moving to a new mobile phone operator, providing a positive experience is especially important at a potentially stressful time.

Of high importance to patients is the ability to easily and efficiently interact with healthcare organizations over their chosen channels. According to research by the NCR Corporation, 70 percent of Americans are likely to choose a healthcare provider that reduces frustration by providing them the flexibility to interact easily online, over a mobile phone, or through kiosks. Further, 54 percent of respondents welcome the flexibility to book appointments online, and obtain test results or follow-ups securely on the Internet. The NCR research found that 43 percent of patients want to manage their personal health information online.

Similarly, in a longitudinal study of healthcare consumers, The 2012 Survey of U.S. Health Care Consumers: Five-Year Look Back, conducted by Deloitte, stresses that as healthcare consumerism grows, consumers want greater and better choices and are showing interest in online tools that provide information on potential cost of care and insurance, quality, and performance information on both physicians and hospitals. "Many use online resources for information about treatments and medical conditions and growing numbers (younger generations in particular) look for technology based solutions such as monitoring devices, apps, and information from social media," Deliotte notes.

These numbers shouldn't come as a surprise. As we highlighted earlier this year, customers are increasingly looking for ways to self-serve. "As consumers, we have become comfortable with self-service, and, in fact, now expect to choose when, where, and how we make transactions," notes Putting the Patient in Control: Employing Technology Solutions to Empower Patients, a study by NCR and the now defunct Center for Health Transformation. "Healthcare must now respond to the major shift taking place to what is known as e-health or wireless healthcare, which involves electronic health information and mobile channels," notes Steve Francis, GMC Software Technology's president and general manager for North America.

But according to Lou Carbone, founder and CEO at Experience Engineering, much of the healthcare industry is still stuck in the past and not delivering the experience and service that customers expect and need. "They don't stitch the experience together, which is a handover from the industrial age when everything was still siloed," he notes. Carbone explains that most of the frameworks in healthcare are built around old-world thinking and business leaders are losing sight of patients' needs. "Many organizations are focused on managing the processes rather than the experience."

Multichannel health service

While patients' expectations are on the increase, the healthcare industry is being plagued by a shortage of doctors, apart from the shortage of nursing staff that has been a problem for several years. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, nationwide doctor shortages are expected to continue growing, reaching a 90,000 deficit by 2020. Further, advances in medicine mean that people are living longer and expecting a better level of care. Therefore, the fewer doctors have to deal with an increasing number of patients.

To further complicate matters, as with other industries, customers want to access healthcare across multiple channels. As Mark Pitts, director for data science, solutions and strategy at UnitedHealth Group, notes, the explosion of different modes of communication is one of the challenges faced by the healthcare industry. "People have different means of communication and part of the challenge is making sure that the signal comes across through the noise," he says. In fact, with so many interactions across different channels, it is at times difficult for organizations to understand exactly the message that customers are trying to deliver. "It can be a challenge to find the needle in the haystack," Pitts says.

As Deloitte points out, "multichannel information strategies will be necessary to reach consumers in a marketplace that is fragmented with multiple opportunities, resources, and information streams for consumers to use to access information and facilitate decision-making about the healthcare they consume." Further, different age groups have different media preferences and utilization behavior, making it necessary for healthcare organizations to take these differences into account. "Emerging media formats, tools, and apps offer consumers-particularly younger generational groups-considerable opportunities to use online resources and social media for motivation and health goal tracking, wellness, information gathering, support, and encouragement," Deloitte argues. And, as Ken Epstein, vice president of global sales and marketing at C3/CustomerContactChannels, points out, older generations are becoming more accustomed to new service channels like email and mobile and are expecting organizations to facilitate such interactions. "The adoption of technology based services will increase because baby boomers are more comfortable with them," Epstein says.

John Sung Kim, CEO of DoctorBase, notes that patients are expecting to connect with their physicians in the same way they communicate with other organizations, with mobile communications leading the way and patients wanting to interact with physicians even via text messages. Dr. Adrienne Lara, who heads the Celebrating Women Center, has experienced this move first hand. "Most of my patients are now buried in their phones," she says, adding that they've also become less tolerant about getting answers to their health questions. "They expect immediacy," she notes. Lara was receiving multiple calls, emails, and even faxes from patients who needed their questions answered. Two years ago Lara implemented DoctorBase's mobile messaging, which allows patients to communicate with Lara over their mobile phones through short messages and allowing them to attach photos. By allowing patients to communicate with her over their preferred channels, Lara is able to respond to their questions in the way patients want.

The Mayo Clinic has also recognized the importance of leveraging mobile technology and last year launched a comprehensive health app to provide patients and consumers access to health information and management tips from Mayo's website and online publications as well as clinical trials and even links to request an appointment at several locations.

However, experts argue that much of the healthcare sector is still lagging behind when it comes to investing in new customer service channels. "It's difficult not to realize that customers are using multiple channels," notes Jeanne Bliss, founder of Customer Bliss. While healthcare business leaders understand this need for multichannel service because they encounter it in their lives, they are still finding it difficult to provide a seamless multichannel service. One challenge, Bliss explains, is that data wasn't originally built to be connected across different channels, giving a disconnected view of customers.

Another challenge affecting, healthcare are the restrictions on operating amidst tight regulations and many organizations are apprehensive to be completely transparent with customers because of them. But Bliss notes that it's still possible to abide by regulations while at the same time focusing on improving patients' lives. She refers to the Mayo Clinic's app as a shining example. "The companies that are trying to make simple interactions are being heralded," she notes. GMC's Francis highlights the importance of providing patients with the opportunity to interact with healthcare organizations over the channel of their choice "assuming it meets compliance."

Preempting patient needs

Forward-thinking healthcare providers and insurers don't just react. Instead, these companies are taking a pivotal role in understanding patients' needs and trying to preempt problems and stop them from happening. UnitedHealth Group's Pitts notes that data is integral to understand members' needs and deliver the service and experience that they need over the channel of their choice. Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina is one such organization that's leveraging data to gain a 360-degree view of patients, allowing the insurer to help healthcare institutions provide the best care for its members. Daryl Wansink, Ph.D., the insurer's director for health economics, notes that the organization is using a number of predictive models to determine the risk of adverse events, helping hospitals reduce the number of readmissions and helping patients lead a more healthy life.

One challenge that healthcare providers face is lack of data about their patients. If, for example, a patient has been admitted to another hospital recently or has seen a primary care physician shortly before admission, hospitals don't always have access to this information. Because Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina has a more holistic view of patients, the insurer is able to give additional information to treating hospitals. "We are trying to determine the likelihood of people needing hospitalization in order to better coordinate with their doctors," Wansink says. The near real-time readmission models alert the insurer when a high-risk patient is receiving treatment, allowing the insurer to contact a nurse or case manager who will work with hospital staff to make sure the patient receives the care she needs. This is not only a victory for patients who receive the treatment they need, but also for hospitals that can avoid readmissions.

These advanced companies are the ones that are really understanding their patients and then building all their systems surrounding their patients' needs. "Start with understanding the customers' lives and then translate that into the different channels," Bliss says.