Learning to Address Consumer Convenience in Healthcare

Photo by Samuel Zeller

Years after the fact, I can clearly remember the moment in Dr. Tosh’s college class on Real Estate when he explained the concept of ‘Highest and Best Use’ (HBU). For someone who doesn’t recall where he’s parked half the time, this is notable. Dr. Tosh illustrated the concept of HBU by asking the hypothetical questions “Would you purchase 100 acres of land in Manhattan, raze the buildings on that land, plow it and plant it with corn?” “Similarly, would you purchase one acre of farm land in the rural Mississippi Delta and erect a skyscraper on the site?” The obvious answer to both questions is “No!” Both would be a tremendous waste of resources for what I hope are obvious reasons.

To succeed in the future of healthcare services, from individual physician practices to the very largest multibillion-dollar provider organizations, providers are going to need to accept and apply a variant of the HBU paradigm that Dr. Tosh imparted on me all those years ago. In the case of healthcare providers though, it isn’t the optimal use of land that will dictate the right approach, rather the appropriate consideration and utilization of the consumer’s resources. Those that successfully demonstrate to the consumer that their solutions have considered the best use of the consumer’s resources will be rewarded with additional and repeat business. To anyone from outside the world of American healthcare this comment likely seems self-evident. To anyone who is entrenched in American healthcare this comment can seem far-fetched. Let me explain.

Healthcare largely exists in a bubble in the mind of consumers. Outside of that bubble, the rest of their interactions with the economy function in a largely rational way. From the way they buy cars to the way that they purchase groceries, all follow a somewhat logical economic rationale where supply, demand and quality all mix together to determine appropriate pricing. An environment where better service models earn greater customer adoption and loyalty than lesser models. Outside the healthcare bubble, consumers vote with their dollars and feet to determine the winners and losers in the economy. Treat consumers well with a product that they need at a price that is fair, and you’ll likely survive and perhaps even thrive as a business. Treat customers poorly or overcharge for poor quality goods or services and you are likely punished with a lack of business that leads to eventual failure as an enterprise. The same rules do not apply in healthcare.

Inside the bubble of healthcare, the economy still largely functions in a way that seems to defy norms; it could easily be confused for something crafted straight from the cube-shaped Bizarro World of DC Comic books where everything works the opposite of the way it does here on Earth. The relationship between price and quality is still largely broken. Paying more doesn’t get you more or better. Treating people poorly doesn’t work to your detriment and eventual demise. You can make people wait, make them drive long distances, put their precious health information in a Rube Goldberg-esque portal that even you can’t navigate and treat them with a figurative cold hand and still they come to you, because they feel they have no better options. Healthcare consumers have come to accept levels of absurdity in their journey to better health that they would not even begin to tolerate from their auto mechanic or realtor. But all of this is changing.

Consumer expectations for their healthcare experience is beginning to mirror their broader expectations. They want quality products and services, they want them delivered in a convenient fashion, and they want to be respected by those they spend their money with. They are beginning to vote with their dollars the same way they do elsewhere in the economy. The bubble is slowly popping, the corners are being knocked off the cube-shaped bizarro world…normalcy is coming to areas of healthcare and those who greet it most enthusiastically will be better positioned to thrive than their competitors who don’t.

So, if you are a provider organization and you accept that all of the above is true, what do you do? How do you adjust your thinking about the consumer and your treatment of them? A good and straightforward strategy is to start with a focus on convenience.

Making yourself more convenient to interact with sounds, and largely is, simple. Convenience is little more than closing the gap in time and space that separates you from your consumers. Go to consumers on their terms, at their chosen location, within a more reasonable timeframe than in times past, and be open to leveraging new modalities to accomplish this.

To further codify the thinking around convenience, think of a simple X-Y graph with ‘Distance’ plotted along the X-axis and ‘Time’ plotted along the Y-axis.

The intersection of the X and Y axes at zero is representative of the moment and place when the consumer makes the purchase decision. In our healthcare context, this is when she decides to seek care. If she is able to receive that care at that exact location at that exact time, then you could plot that as overlapping with the X-Y intersection. If she has to wait, then the plot of the care delivery moves up the y-axis. If she has to travel then the plot moves to the right on the x-axis. The longer she waits, the higher the plot. The further she travels, the further right the plot.

The further away from the X-Y intersection you move the delivery of care, the less convenient you are perceived to be through the consumer’s eyes. To enhance your perceived convenience, simply work to move the provision of care down and left on the graph.

Some of the improvements needed to address consumer convenience are easily within most provider organizations grasp. Allow consumers to appoint with your physicians online, use smarter call center practices that require less time waiting and fewer questions to set an appointment. When considering new site locations give preference to those that are easier to reach by the people in that area, etc. These could be characterized as just using common sense in your approach to the consumer marketplace.

Other improvements may appear more challenging. Standing up a telehealth offering to attract and retain patients can seem daunting. Having a pool of physicians with guaranteed same day appointments can be logistically difficult to manage. Creating additional sites of care within an existing facility’s catchment area can be expensive. There are a lot of great objections to investing resources into “Consumer Convenience” initiatives, but don’t assume that because you aren’t investing in them that no one else is. Someone is going to address the highest and best use of the consumer’s resources — I hope it’s you.

If you’d like to connect to discuss the subject further or to understand how your organization can quantify and leverage the above approach to attract and retain new consumers/patients, feel free to contact me, Chris Baxley, at baxley@aprioriadvisors.com or view the A Priori website here: www.aprioriadvisors.com .