Improving patient communications through modern marketing techniques

November 13, 2019

Consumer uses credit card to make an online purchase using his smartphone

When it comes to self-diagnoses, there’s Google and Web MD, where patients can search their symptoms and either scare themselves into thinking they have a rare disease — or find realistic assurance that all they’ve got is the common cold. Then there’s the dichotomy of what potential patients do with this information, either choosing not to worry or calling their PCP’s answering service on Sunday.

With more options available to them, patients today are constantly weighing the pros and cons of these decisions. In fact, this behavior has become so common that a new term has arisen to describe the modern patient: “prosumers” blur the lines between producer and consumer, as patients increasingly become involved in the production of goods and services they consume. This trend has resulted in both pain points and opportunities. For instance, automated messaging via portals means that caregivers no longer have to call each patient, who can be electronically prompted to book preventative care appointments and to pay bills. Those patients can book their appointments online, and even collect their own health information in advance. But increasingly in the era of self-service, some practices are still seeing resistance when it comes to embracing helpful technology and services.

Each patient communicates differently, and motivations and stimuli are different for each. If this sounds like a marketing study, it’s because physiological and psychological sciences oftentimes blur lines. Take, for instance, models of 50-something healthy female patients (such as Decision Point Healthcare’s segmentation study). One patient type skips preventative screenings with the excuse that she’s too busy, but is all too willing to schedule specialist appointments and responds to text-message prompts. Then there’s the other group filled with women who see their PCP regularly but have anxiety about meeting with other medical professionals, so prompting will likely be in-person.

Just because patients are the same gender and age doesn’t mean they think or behave in the same way — just as there’s no universal solution to prompting engagement in an era that increasingly encourages patients to become more actively involved in their care plans.

How to address and enable different patient segments was part of a larger executive forum discussion recently hosted by athenahealth that included U.S.-based physicians and medical business leaders, and athenahealth’s Executive Director of Enterprise Strategy; Jessica Sweeney-Platt. The topics they broached are part of a longer ongoing and necessary dialogue that reaches far beyond healthcare: how to model themselves like the large consumer-based organizations they admire and encourage a healthy ecosystem in which consumers — and all other players, including payers and providers — feel engaged, empowered, and motivated to change outcomes.

Carley Thornell

For some prosumers, enabling engagement could be as simple as an app that tracks the number of steps they take per day. For others whose primary motivation is penny-pinching, they are all about the ability to “shop and save,” one of the six categories of patient personas identified in a comprehensive study by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. And in an even more detailed study of prosumer profiling, as shared by one forum executive, eight patient personality types were identified in a large marketing study sponsored by his care group as the strongest “opportunity areas for our ‘brand’.”

Taking a page from big business, health leaders shared their aspirations in terms of companies that are industry leaders to follow. Delta Airlines was lauded by many for turning around its reputation, improving customer service, and upgrading its fleet (i.e., technology enhancements) that promote a better customer experience. Another popular pick was Amazon’s email inbox targeting and quick delivery algorithms, as well as Patagonia, whose Earth-friendly, mission-driven message hit home with physicians.

By focusing on communication styles in small breakout groups, doctors were able to tie themes back to their everyday patient and business challenges. One physician said that getting input on how to phrase questions — where one group of front desk staff asked, “When would you like to schedule your immunization?” versus another’s “Would you like to schedule…?” — had incremental positive results. Improvement can be as simple as listening to input from those working at all levels, and tailoring how patient groups are addressed like a targeted marketing campaign. Patient birthday emails personalized via athenahealth’s patient engagement service, for instance, have a 33% open rate versus the industry average of 18% for such campaigns. The result is a higher volume of preventative care appointments scheduled and a care-gap satisfaction rate that’s 30% higher than non-contacted patients.

What else has worked? Automated outreach campaigns like that of Privia Health, which customized its own solution using athenahealth’s open APIs to promote appointment reminders, routine vaccinations, and even prompt cancer screenings. Replies are automatically pushed back into EHRs and during one campaign alone resulted in the closure of an estimated 12,000 care gaps. Separate automated marketing-like portal messages during this campaign added up to a time savings of about 125 business days for office staff who no longer have to call patients with these reminders, improving the pace and convenience of care for patients, as well as their health.

Sweeney-Platt challenged participants to brainstorm about their roles in determining similar solutions, and about the right technology needed to engage the four distinct roles of the prosumer:

  • Patient: at the epicenter of the healthcare ecosystem (the sun in the universe model), whereby all services — PCPs, hospital services, mobile apps, and more — orbit around the person receiving care instead of the healthcare organization in an environment that’s open, accessible, and connected thanks to modern technology like EHRs.
  • Care team member: Patient is proactive about engaging in their own profile, monitoring weight, blood pressure, exercising, getting flu shot, etc., in addition to participating in patient portal(s) to communicate/collaborate with caregivers.
  • Payer: Patient understands they will have to assume some expenses in their care (according to most plans and deductible structures), but is also encouraged to shop around for services at a better value, like MRI and imaging centers outside of hospitals. In some cases, they may be incentivized by insurance companies and employers for being in good health.
  • Consumer: Appreciates the move toward convenience and transparency, and wants to interact with providers via apps, schedule appointments and pay bills online.

Physicians and healthcare leaders agreed that understanding the “customer’s journey” is especially helpful as they embrace techniques to help paint more colorful portraits across the healthcare continuum. It’s clear that making informed decisions is about much more than just diagnosing disease or illness — it’s about a holistic approach to patient engagement that considers their behaviors and motivations, and how those also affect care.

Carley Thornell is a content manager for athenahealth's Knowledge Hub.

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