Healthcare customer experience – your next great (and required) differentiator

Patients are no longer patients; they have become customers; and customers conceive of ‘healthcare’ more holistically today than patients ever imagined they could. It’s not simply diagnostics, treatment and prevention, but how they conduct their lives and make intentional choices. The scope of health is also much bigger – these customers see the direct connections between their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. This has led to dissatisfaction with being relegated to a role as an uninformed and unempowered patient who seems oddly not to be the centre of attention in the healthcare world. There is a rising demand to be treated like valued customers by the various healthcare players that compete for their business.

Your customers’ interactions with other industries have contributed much to heightened expectations in healthcare, especially as digital becomes a bigger part of every experience people take part in. As these customers’ more holistic definitions of healthcare redefine the landscape, countless new players represent serious competition within this transforming field of play. It’s not only the relentless launch of MedTech and eHealth startups providing easy to understand app-like offers, but digital-first device and service providers like Google, Apple, and Amazon who already have customer-centricity built into their DNA.

New consumer expectations

Rising to the challenge of these new threats will require established healthcare businesses to gain the capacity to deeply understand consumer motivations and behaviours, and then, based on these insights, rapidly design and deploy experiences that satisfy and delight. One example of shifting motivation and behaviour: patients used to see a doctor as a response to feeling sick, but customers now seek support and advice as they actively monitor their health metrics proactively. The entire dynamic, goals, and roles of individual and healthcare providers have all radically changed in this scenario.

I imagine that you have already seen evidence of these observations in your professional and personal life. You might frame these shifts and challenges a bit differently than I have above, but you’ve probably already considered their impacts on your industry and your own company. Of course, determining how to respond is the real trick. Customer experience is now a vitally important differentiator in the healthcare marketplace, so lets look at how to use it as a strategic tool.

Across all aspects of their lives, people look for experiences and interactions that are on-demand, personalized, personally meaningful, enable them to play active roles, and grow their abilities. The popularity of services such as 23andMe, a $99 genetic test, and AliveCor, a smartphone-connected echocardiogram, both match these baseline customer expectations. Platforms that enable knowledge-sharing and support, like Patients Like Me, allow consumers to play the expert on their own condition and to help others rather than feel they are helpless themselves. 165,000 English-language Health Apps were launched in 2015; a 160% increase from 2014. Obviously, relatively few will have a big impact, but the doors are wide open, and experience expectations are being set from outside of healthcare.

Perhaps due to this flood of new possibilities, healthcare consumers bring their comparison-shopping mentality from other categories; an especially noteworthy emerging behaviour in light of the tech giants entering healthcare who have been built from the ground up to compete this way. As Susannah Fox, CTO at the US Department of Health & Human Services recently put it so well, “We’re living through this time right now where technology is a Trojan Horse for change. We say technology, but we mean innovation. We say interoperability and open data, but we mean culture change.

Design new experiences

A great customer experience is not simply designed to stand out on the shelf, and we don’t create experiences just for the sake of being different. Well-designed experiences become differentiated because they provide clear value to the customer and fit easily within people’s lives. These experiences should require little change in how customers currently conduct their lives; they should introduce few or no unfamiliar customer tasks that are barriers to perceiving new value; and they should provide relevant and useable information to customers about the current state of their healthcare or their progress towards personal health goals.

Let’s look at “fast track surgery” as an example of a well-designed experience based on understanding customer motivations and behaviors. Fast track surgery is a coordinated approach aimed at reducing surgical stress and facilitating postoperative recovery. It reduces the length of time the patient must remain in the hospital and often eliminates the need for an overnight stay. To achieve these objectives, the entire pre- to post-operative flow is redesigned around the patient using measurable experience criteria such as convenience, stress avoidance, personal attention, access to information, and slow/low context change. It also designs a new role and mindset for the patient/customer – to get as fit as they possibly can prior to the procedure; asking them to participate in their readiness by training as if to run a 5K, for example. For the customer, this fast track experience is not just about a better outcome – as important as this obviously is – but also encompasses the specific qualities of the overall journey that leads to that outcome: confidence, control, calm, and understanding.

Design for the customer’s context

To create healthcare experiences that meet these criteria, we need to understand two dimensions of how healthcare is situated in people’s lives. The first dimension is the value chain of the healthcare context itself. Think of this as the vertical stack – all necessary elements top to bottom that must align and work together to provide a solution for a particular healthcare need for consumers.

Healthcare is a complex ecosystem in which people strive to maintain their health, as well as to prevent, diagnose and treat illness and to manage the effects of ageing. Individual offers do not exist in a vacuum; there are many – at times competing – health needs and objectives that people need to juggle, and consumers combine various products, services, tools and information sources to meet different unique goals. To unpack this complexity, we must identify specific customer needs and translate them into defined use cases, and then map all the actions, tools and data that make up an overall experience. This provides an better perspective on how products and services are used in the real world. From this new perspective, we can analyse the current experience and prioritise potential changes to improve it – or identify an entirely new way that better addresses the need.

But beyond understanding how your offers are situated within this healthcare stack, we also need to look at how people’s healthcare needs and activities fit within their broader lives. This is the second dimension – the real “lived lives” of people as an ongoing journey where healthcare modes and moments are embedded across this horizontal path.

Healthcare is not the primary way people orient themselves to the world; even people with compromised health don’t want to make management of their condition the primary content of their day-to-day lives. People’s goals, tasks, and outcomes within the healthcare context need to mesh with a host of other elements that make up consumers’ lives. This includes elements most adjacent, such as diet, exercise, stress management, relaxation and leisure, as well as those with more indirect connections such as social life, family relationships, career, and necessary life chores like shopping, commuting, cleaning and paying bills. This horizontal dimension is an illustration of how healthcare moments fit within people’s other activities and priorities to create dynamic daily, monthly, annual experience journeys through their lives.

Design for maintaining health, not sickness

On a recent project for a medical technology company, we asked people with diabetes to each map out ‘my healthcare life.’ The results we’re extremely illuminating. While participants illustrated how, when and where they monitored blood glucose, administered insulin and logged food intake, what was more revealing was their mental state or emotional response to moments in their habitual processes. It provided a deeper context of understanding how the various elements of managing their condition did, or more often did not, align into a cohesive whole; how these elements didn’t adapt well to they way participants wanted to live their day-to-day lives; and how often they had to create their own work-arounds (like transcribing digital data by hand into a notebook to make sense of it for themselves). So from the get-go, the vertical experience dimension – the healthcare value chain – was not meeting their needs and expectations.

Beyond the misalignment of the vertical healthcare stack, these people’s experience journeys repeatedly revealed that their commercially available healthcare experiences clashed harshly with the other aspects and goals of their lives, sometimes forcing them to conduct uncomfortably intimate actions in public. So clearly, not only was the integration of the vertical healthcare stack not working, neither was the integration into the horizontal dimension of their lives’ experience journeys.

By taking efforts to really understand and document where and how your offers exist in the vertical healthcare stack as well as the broader, horizontal life journey of real people, you create an orientation that enables intentional product and service decisions. This is meaningful differentiation: meeting customers’ needs in ways that require the least learning and change on their part, and that work within the context of the lives they want to lead. This orientation across these two dimensions also leads to identification of completely new opportunity spaces, within your core offerings, as well as in unexpected adjacent spaces (the area that represents the biggest growth potential, but also where new entrants may have significant advantages over healthcare incumbents).

Developing this ‘stack x journey’ matrix view of people’s real experiences generally requires a combination of quantitative methods (providing a macro view by sifting data sources for global trends, key behaviours, and customer sentiment) and qualitiative (providing the micro view by gathering individuals’ detailed stories of how they personally structure the elements within this big picture to author their own unique life stories). This qual/quant combined view of these two dimensions creates a powerful basis for identification, design and delivery of appropriate experiences that fit people’s needs and their context, and create meaningful differentiation of your products and services in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

In upcoming posts, I’ll share observations on how to deliver complex experiences within (healthcare) ecosystems of complimentary and rival offers; and the business challenges and opportunities present in the growing awareness among citizens in low-income countries that they, too, are customers first, and patients second.

Image by Erwin Morales /Flickr


Jul 28, 2016