Retail Practices

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders News , June 14, 2007

When I was interviewing sources for the March cover story of HealthLeaders magazine about marketing's influence on the healthcare industry, several chief marketing officers told me they are seeking greater input into healthcare delivery.

Marketers reason that through research they understand consumer preferences and have the business know-how to create better consumer experiences that are different from competitors. They want involvement in everything that could potentially shape the patient experience."That's the more mature marketing process," Eric Fletcher, chief marketing officer for High Point (NC) Regional Health System, told me. "That's what Starbucks does."

Indeed, more and more healthcare institutions are employing the techniques of companies like Starbucks and Wal-Mart to improve services. Yesterday's Boston Globe has a story about how Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's mystery shopper program is improving patients' waiting room experience--and even catching HIPAA violations.

Walking the exhibit hall of an MGMA or AMGA conference proves that this phenomenon isn't just for large hospitals and health systems. There's a cottage industry of consultants and vendors that aim to help physician practices develop service standards that have long existed in the retail industry.

Whether you choose to describe these efforts as "creating market differentiators" or "developing a patient-centered environment" the result is a better experience for your consumers and, therefore, a better perception of your services. As they continually pay a greater share for healthcare, your patients are more often viewing themselves as consumers who can choose to do business with you or your competition.

That's one of the reasons I see some upside to emerging retail- and pharmacy-based clinics. As long as the playing field is even, competition among businesses tends to offer greater choices and improved services to consumers.

In the case of physician practices, service is just about the only way most of us can make healthcare decisions. On the subject of patient experience and expectations, I spoke with J. Alan Fleischmann, MD, vice president for Franciscan Skemp, a 250-member integrated delivery network headquartered in La Crosse, WI, and part of the Mayo Health System.

"Patients can't measure our quality very effectively, so service is a huge differentiator if it is done well. The world has changed from the paternalistic approach to medicine, where a doctor will tell you what you are supposed to do and you will obey," Fleischmann says. "We should supply care in a patient-centric way rather than a physician-centric way."

But I'd be interested in hearing about what readers have noticed. How have patient/consumer expectations changed? Are retail clinics even on your radar yet? Have your business practices evolved to meet patient demands and competition? What are you doing to interact more effectively with patients?

Rick Johnson is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at

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