A Roadmap to Improve Customer-Centricity in Health Care

While the benefits of customer-centricity are clear, many organizations are not currently set up to accommodate the involvement of consumers in their own healthcare decisions. This means that healthcare administrators need to assess their own organizational capacity and determine how best to support patient-centered efforts moving forward.

Gone are the days when healthcare organizations and clinicians held total responsibility for making the decisions on how to treat their patients. Today, thanks to advances brought about by healthcare reform, including an increased emphasis on customer satisfaction and value-driven care, many people are becoming more active participants in their own healthcare.

Yet while other industries have long involved customers in their sales and service processes, the healthcare field is still lagging behind in strategically engaging consumers. This means that many important opportunities for creating customer-centered care are still being missed, according to John Quelch, Professor in Health Policy and Management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and author of Consumers, Corporations and Public Health. By recognizing the gaps that exist and taking steps to address them, Quelch says that healthcare leaders and their organizations can be more successful in implementing a customer-centric approach that supports broader goals.

Recognizing the Value of Customer-Centricity

To understand the true value of applying customer-centricity in the health field, Quelch says that leaders must first recognize the current realities that exist in the healthcare system. “When healthcare costs are very high, as they are in the United States, the industry has to focus on cost efficiency and centralized regulations that are designed to rein in those costs,” he explains. “This can result in a higher degree of reporting bureaucracy from front-line employees, as well as poor morale.” This can also lead to poorer outcomes in many cases, he adds.

A customer-centric approach can work to change this scenario by shifting the focus to the consumers themselves, better involving them in their own care processes. For instance, a customer-centric approach empowers patients to work with physicians to understand their own health risks and treatment options and to take an active role in making their own decisions. The benefits of this approach can be significant.

“If the consumer is engaged in researching [his or her own health] problem, he or she will be more likely to also become engaged in his or her preventative care,” he says. Taking such preventative actions can help save money, improve self-esteem and quality of life, and achieve better adherence to practitioner recommendations. “So engaging the consumer as a partner in healthcare can be cost effective and can improve outcomes at the same time,” he says.

Getting Started with Customer-Centricity

While the benefits of customer-centricity are clear, many organizations are not currently set up to accommodate the involvement of consumers in their own healthcare decisions. In addition, some practitioners don’t see value in investing time trying to empower patients to take a more active role in their own health, Quelch says. This means that healthcare administrators need to assess their own organizational capacity and determine how best to support patient-centered efforts moving forward. He adds that to do this effectively requires a deeper understanding on the part of the organization and its practitioners of how involving the consumer can support broader organizational and public health missions.

The healthcare field is still lagging behind in strategically engaging consumers.

Further, while some organizations may want to try strengthening top-down management capacity to rectify existing organizational challenges, Quelch points out that healthcare leaders need to understand that such a solution could be counterintuitive. “A better alternative is often to delegate more authority and responsibility to the people on the front line who are being affected by these decisions, such as practitioners and the people they serve,” he says. In practical terms, this means providers and consumers would work together as a team to define and achieve the person’s health goals, with both sides sharing an investment in the process and the results.

Tailoring Efforts to Meet Different Patient Segments

When designing a customer-centric approach for your organization, it’s important to recognize that not all patients are created equal and therefore, how you approach this challenge may change depending on who you are targeting. “You have to know your current consumer base, as well as profile potential consumers that you could serve in the future,” Quelch says. By identifying whom you want to reach, you can better tailor your marketing and outreach efforts to create effective working partnerships.

To understand the diversity of consumers you serve, he proposes a matrix that includes four segments. In one corner, you have people who are healthy and involved in taking care of themselves. They may use a Fitbit or other activity tracking device, get regular exercise, eat a balanced diet, and follow recommended health screening guidelines. In another quadrant, you have people who are sick and who are not involved in their health. “Maybe they are unable, unwilling, or unprepared to become engaged,” he says. Patients in this corner may have multiple chronic conditions and their healthcare is likely very expensive. The third segment comprises people who are healthy but uninvolved, such as Millennials, who believe they are invincible and therefore don’t see the need to invest money on health insurance and care. Finally, the last segment consists of people who are sick but do engage in taking care of their health, like someone who had a heart attack but now eats well and walks every day.

Once you’ve defined your population(s), you also need to think about how you will reach them and draw them in to your network. While this sounds like an obvious task, Quelch points out that in most hospital marketing departments today, the staff is typically focused on advertising and not on consumer research, despite the fact that the research findings can be fundamental to creating a more successful consumer-centered operating strategy and to tailoring advertising messages to better resonate with the target populations. Further, hospitals often miss the boat on connecting their strategy to their mission and fundamental values.

“Hospitals often have a strategy, but not a set of core values that are consumer-focused,” Quelch says. “Yet the consumer is who keeps the hospital in business, so this equation needs to change,” he says.

Looking at the Big Picture

Beyond defining the target audiences and considering how best to reach them, Quelch points out that administrators must not lose sight of the big picture. In this case, this means thinking through service lines and staffing capacity to meet the needs that exist. “Most hospitals think about this in terms of individual specialties, such as becoming world-class in oncology or gastroenterology,” he says. But there is a problem with this equation.

“This [way of thinking] is product driven and not market driven,” Quelch says, pointing out that the approach evolves from what the hospital decides to offer, rather than basing its offerings on a survey of current and potential needs that exist. Therefore, his advice is to reframe your point of reference to consider what needs you are trying to fill and to determine how you will do that in the most effective way.

“Hospitals need to know their existing consumer base, as well as potential [new] consumer bases that could be served,” he says. “You have to decide what mix of patients you are interested in serving. Therefore, a more consumer-centric evaluation would be based on what populations you are going to serve and which ones you won’t serve,” he adds.

Five Key Points of Consumer-Centric Care

For healthcare leaders who want to deepen their work in this area, it can help to think about things from the customer’s perspective in order to design a consumer-centered experience that will live up to its potential.

Engaging the consumer as a partner in healthcare can be cost effective and improve outcomes.

“There are five things that consumers want in the healthcare experience,” Quelch says. He calls these the “five E’s” of consumer-centric care, and these include:

  1. Experience that will lead to a cure.
  2. Empathy to make them feel that the provider cares.
  3. Efficiency so that they won’t be kept waiting.
  4. Economy to ensure they are getting fair value.
  5. Empowerment that gives them some degree of choice around their treatment plans.

All of these elements need to be incorporated into the customer experience, Quelch points out. Yet he says that this is not yet a given. “I find very few hospitals that have done significant research to understand what different segments of consumers want,” he says, “and what the trade-offs should be to deliver the right mix of benefits to each group.”

Putting It Together

With so many elements to consider, Quelch’s advice to healthcare leaders ready to begin strengthening their consumer-focused efforts is simple. Start with a consumer research or market research supplier who can get you the data to make educated decisions about your customer base and their wants and needs. Also appoint a senior person to be responsible for the consumer experience. Only when you have your facts can you truly design an effective strategy for how to move forward and create a deeper relationship that benefits both consumers and the organization. He also says it’s important to make a long-term commitment to stay the course. For more information on the challenges facing health care organizations pursuing a customer-centric strategy, read our article 8 Challenges to Customer-Driven Health Care.

“In the final analysis, consumer-centricity is something that can only be achieved if there’s a genuine commitment from the leadership of your organization,” Quelch stresses.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Customer-Driven Strategies for Health Care Professionals, an intensive, case-based program on improving customer-centricity in health care.