Shopping for Healthcare: The 21st Century Healthcare Consumer

Curt Ippensen, for HealthLeaders Media , March 19, 2008

The media are filled with reports of consumers seeking more control over their own healthcare. But we've found that with a few exceptions, healthcare executives and physicians are slow to adapt to this trend. Are the executives and physicians correct to move so slowly? Is the media correct in its assessment? Or has the emergence of consumerism in healthcare been over-hyped?

Rhea + Kaiser Marketing Communication's Healthcare Group set out to quantify whether a genuine disconnect exists between consumers and healthcare executives and physicians.

We engaged Synovate, a global research firm in Chicago, IL, to manage the study implementation and data tabulation using a random sample of their 72,000 household national consumer panel. In our recent online survey, 659 consumers representing the U.S. adult population responded..

The study clearly showed that most hospitals aren't adapting their organizations to embrace the sea change of consumers taking a much more active role in making healthcare decisions. The same disconnect extends to the vast majority of physicians, too.

The underlying reasons include the following:

  • Serious affordability concerns by consumers
  • A lack of pricing and performance transparency on the part of hospitals and physicians
  • Not providing consumers with the convenience and responsiveness they've come to expect from other retail service organizations

In the absence of objective measures, the majority of consumers rate their primary care physician and specialists as the same as other physicians or they don't know. Quality is assumed. There's nothing new here.

The study clearly shows that in this new era of consumerism, physician and hospital selection will be based on other differentiators.

Four themes emerged from our study. Consumers want:

  • Transparency to aid decision making
  • Convenience
  • Responsiveness
  • The same level of online connectivity they've come to experience from other retail service organizations

We suggest that forward-thinking hospital CEOs and physicians should shift their view from "inside-out" to "outside-in" by getting closer to their customers. By changing their viewpoint, hospitals and physicians will focus on the priorities consumers find important and appealing.

The most successful ones will reorder their priorities. Then they will communicate their shift in priorities to consumers in a differentiating and engaging fashion as any retailer would do.

What's important and appealing to consumers
There is generally a high degree of correlation between what's important and what's appealing to consumers.

Consumers expect their hospital and physicians to keep them well and to have access to the best. It's a given.

Our study then confirmed what we hypothesized: That consumers' idea of what is important and appealing in their hospital and physicians aren't what most hospital CEOs and physicians are focused on. Five of the top ten attributes ranked "most important" by consumers, and seven of the top 12 attributes ranked "most appealing" by consumers related to transparency in pricing and outcomes, convenience and responsiveness.

The following are the most important attributes, listed in order of importance, followed by the percent of respondents responding:

  • Keeping me well (73%)
  • Immediate access to specialist at forefront of medicine (68%)
  • Letting me know prices in advance (59%)
  • PCP at forefront of medicine (56%)
  • Receiving test results in 24 hours (51%)
  • MD ranking vs. peers (47%)
  • Hospital ranking on outcomes (44%)
  • MD and hospital treats most difficult cases (37%)
  • MD has EMR (30%)
  • hospital retains non-profit status (30%)

The following are the most appealing attributes, listed in order of importance, followed by the percent of respondents responding:

  • Keeping you well (80%)
  • Scheduling appointments online (72%)
  • Immediate access to specialists at forefront (66%)
  • Test results in 24 hours (67%)
  • Letting me know your prices in advance (66%)
  • Able to order prescriptions via the internet (64%)
  • Ranked in U.S. News & World Report (63%)
  • PCP at forefront of medicine (61%)
  • MD ranking vs. peers (60%)
  • Physician or hospital has EMR (60%)
  • Hospital ranking on outcomes (57%)

Regardless of age, consumers want online access for a variety of reasons related to convenience and responsiveness. It was surprising that the second most appealing attribute was being able to schedule appointments online over the Internet.

These results clearly shatter the old myth that all consumers think their physician has an electronic medical record. Prior research conducted in 2004 indicated at that time most consumers felt if their physician used a computer they had an electronic medical record. Today, most recognize their physicians don't have them. The consumer has become better educated.

Summary Conclusions and Recommendations
Physician quality and performance is viewed as a commodity by 60% of consumers. Quality is the price of entry. As a result it will be the other attributes related to transparency, convenience and responsiveness that will drive initial choice and loyalty.

We believe decisions about hospital and physician choice are now made with the same expectations as other retail transactions.

With few exceptions hospitals and physicians have a long way to go. But seismic shifts now occurring in healthcare have happened in other American industries. Examples include:

  • The automotive industry
  • The airline industry
  • The banking and financial services industry

Curt Ippensen is with Rhea + Kaiser Marketing Communications in Naperville, IL. For more information on this topic, contact Sue LaBarbera, management supervisor at R+K, via e-mail at slabarbera@rkconnect.comor by phone at 630-955-2533.

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