Is the New Hospital Experience Rooted in Retail? What Healthcare Can Learn From Online Sellers

As the New Year begins, it’s worth a backwards look at the ways retail technologies continue to change healthcare. It may not seem like it, but the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales of last year (and this) have everything to do with how healthcare will be delivered in the future by medical organizations large and small. Each shopping experience is rooted in the concept that the customer and customer service come first whether it’s night or day, weekdays or weekends:
  • If shoppers have the desire to make a purchase at 1 a.m. at home or on-the-road it’s no problem because websites are open 24/7.
  • When shoppers have a question, it’s only a chat box away from being answered.
Similar digital outreach is happening more and more in healthcare. Yet many online interactions between healthcare consumers and healthcare remain static. A patient can check her bill online. She can email or chat with a healthcare provider and wait for an answer. She can engage on social media and wait for a response. The constant among each of these situations is the delay between the question and the response. Something that healthcare consumers are less and less willing to put up with as they compare the instantaneous nature of online shopping with other tasks, whether it’s banking, buying a car or receiving healthcare services.

Change is Coming
The best and latest example of how healthcare is responding to the future comes Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia. Jefferson recently announced it would offer the first-ever fellowship program in Telehealth. This is remarkable because one of the country’s most prestigious hospital systems and medical schools has acknowledged—by rolling out a physician-education program to support online health—that healthcare consumerism and everyday technology, like smartphones, and in-home voice and video digital assistants, are dramatically changing the way healthcare will be delivered and consumed in the future. “As digital communication continues to evolve, the organization recognizes the value of integrating modern technologies to more effectively coordinate care,” according to a Jefferson University Hospitals news release about the program.

In addition, the university hospital system built JeffConnect, a smartphone app and website designed to meet the growing needs of healthcare consumers who’d rather receive healthcare on-the-go than sit in a waiting room. This virtual consultation service includes on-demand 24/7 video visits, scheduled visits to discuss treatment progress and second opinions. And for families who can’t visit loved ones in a Jefferson hospital, they can remotely participate in care through video conferencing in the patient’s room as providers make rounds.
“The rest of the world has become consumer-centric and has absolutely zero patience for waiting 24 hours to do anything. Rather than watching other companies make a lot of money because we don’t have our act together, we want to be part of those companies,” said Stephen Klasko, M.D., CEO of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital as quoted by Healthcare Finance.

And that “consumer-centric” shift Klasko describes has made its way to the world of healthcare where, among healthcare consumers as a whole, 85 percent say “they decide when, where and how to receive health and care services.” (PDF) This is an extraordinary and significant shift from the idea that the “doctor knows best.”

Is a Death Knell for Hospitals…

By and large, most people have no desire to spend more time in a hospital than needed. This is nothing new. For years, the healthcare industry has been attempting to get people to the right care at the right time in the right place. (A few weeks ago I wrote on this topic and explored how one might use the Amazon retail model to create a fully-automated health clinic.) The advent of retail health clinics in standalone buildings or drug stores most recently pushed this idea forward.

Years before, disease management programs helped people with chronic conditions through phone calls with registered nurses and data collected via internet-connected scales, blood pressure cuffs or blood-glucose monitors. Even earlier there were health plan sponsored advice lines where members could call nurses day or night, describe acute symptoms and receive a plan of action. All from home.

Each of these consumer-focused healthcare programs used the technology of the time to ensure patients never had to set foot in a hospital or emergency department (unless it was needed) in an attempt to get them to the right care in the most appropriate setting. Healthcare met patients where they wanted to be. Not in the hospital or even a doctor’s office, but in the comfort of their own homes and communities.

These programs are decidedly low-tech compared to the technologies healthcare consumers have access to today. However, the programs and the tech of the time presaged where healthcare consumers want to be now: Online all the time.

Cognizant research shows (PDF) 67 percent of healthcare consumers want to use a website for digital interactions with healthcare providers, while 25 percent prefer a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet. No matter how the connection is made, health plan members want to use the tools to manage their health on their own terms with nearly 57 percent preferring digital self-care options, such as access to wellness, fitness and smoking cessation programs.

What does digital have to do with the hospital closures? While there are many reasons hospitals are closing—as of August 2018, 11 hospitals in the U.S. have closed their doors—the way we consume healthcare has a role. More and more of that consumption happens online far from any hospital.

By the end of 2018, the American Hospital Association predicts approximately 30 hospitals will shut down. And analysts found 8 percent of all hospitals in the U.S. are at risk of closing. (There are more than 5,500 hospitals in the country.)

So is the hospital dead? Yes. And no. But the patient is not doing as well as expected.

…a Boon for Digital Health?

And Millennials. It always seems to be about Millennials these days and healthcare has not gone unscathed. “The 83 million millennials born between 1981 and 1996 are proving to be sharply different from previous generations in how they seek care—opting for convenience and lower price over maintaining a relationship with a primary care doctor,” according to the American Hospital Association.

Millennials are just the tip of the we-want-digital-healthcare iceberg. A new study by a large consulting group found “approximately 70 percent of all consumers are interested in receiving a range of health and care services virtually.” (PDF)

Virtual healthcare, as defined by the consulting group, harkens back to the statement from Jefferson’s Klasko: It is completely and unabashedly consumer-centric. “Virtual care,” the group explains, “offers what consumers really want: a variety of health and care services available to any location at any time, crossing the spectrum from health and wellness to episodic injury and illness to ongoing condition management.”

We are not yet in a post-hospital world, but changes are coming to healthcare and coming quickly. For those hospitals that don’t or can’t make the leap to their own version of Black Friday or Cyber Monday—the American Hospital Association even provides consumer-centric tips for its members on ways to attract and retain Millennial patients—there will be problems in the form of fewer patients, less revenue, and more empty beds and clinics.
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