The Always-On Healthcare Consumer

Published on May 16, 2016

The Harvard Business Review recently published a great article by Werner Reinartz about changing consumer purchasing behavior. Reinartz’s thesis is that consumers increasingly view shopping as an “ambient” activity. Instead of the old paradigm of first experiencing a need, then going to a store, and finally purchasing a product, consumers now want to transact as soon as they first experience the underlying need. They are always shopping. This is upending the traditional business models of both brick-and-mortar and digital retailers, and driving growth for a new generation of consumer-facing service providers.

healthcare consumer on her smartphoneWhile Reinartz’s article directly addresses the retail sector, it has important implications for healthcare. Why? Because “patients” are consumers too. The deeper technological and social forces that are driving the new world of always-on, ambient shopping are also conditioning consumers to expect the same experience when they buy other services.

Of course, not all consumers are equal. As one might expect, younger, technologically-savvy people are setting this trend. But across all categories, consumers increasingly want immediacy, in-context relevance, personalization, and ongoing dialogue with all of their service providers – on any device, at any time. If they can’t get those things, the competition is just a smartphone swipe away.

The always-on healthcare consumer is here, but today’s healthcare system is not the always-on service they want. The only truly always-on piece of the traditional healthcare system is the Emergency Department (ED), which is a hugely expensive and inefficient setting for treating non-emergency conditions. A 2010 study by the New England Healthcare Institute estimated that ED overuse causes $38 billion in wasteful spending per year. It’s unfair to blame that waste on the consumer. They are looking for immediacy and dialogue, and all too often today they are finding those things in the ED – at significant cost to all of us.

Innovators – thought leaders at healthcare providers and startup companies – are beginning to make strides towards turning healthcare into an always-on service: longer clinic hours, nurse help lines, patient portals, Internet-based scheduling, smartphone apps, the beginnings of price transparency. All of these tools are important, but the bigger innovation will be the scaling up of new models of care delivery and payment. Retrace Health is bringing primary care to the people, at an affordable price. Zipnosis and Learn To Live are two great examples in the virtual care space. Oscar is a health plan that gives people real membership subscription benefits, and doesn’t feel like an insurance product. And the list goes on.

To stay relevant in an always-on world, healthcare providers need to start by developing a deep quantitative and qualitative understanding of their customers – and how those customers’ journeys are changing. Then, both physical and digital assets must be aligned to match these new journeys. If healthcare providers do this, their customers will start viewing them like Amazon Prime, not like Blockbuster.

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