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Healthcare consumers have changed their wants, needs, and expectations. The organizations working in the healthcare industry that understand this implicitly and then deliver to the expectations, needs, and wants of the consumer will do well.

According to a survey of thousands of patients in Germany, Singapore, and the UK, the adoption of digital healthcare services remains low because existing services are either low quality or not meeting patients’ needs. The survey, conducted by consulting firm McKinsey, included responses from at least 1,000 patients in the three countries.[i]

It can be argued that success in the use of digital communication depends very much on first understanding patients’ digital preferences in both channel and service.

Health systems, payers, and providers often think they need to be innovative when designing their digital-service offerings. But the core features patients expect from their health system are surprisingly ordinary: efficiency, better access to information, integration with other channels, and the availability of a real person if the digital service doesn’t give them what they need. Highly innovative services, better apps, and more social media are far less important to most patients.

Surprisingly, across the globe, most people want the same thing: assistance with routine tasks and navigating the often-complex healthcare system. In Germany, Singapore, and the UK, for example – three very different countries with three very different health systems – patients most often cite ‘finding and scheduling physician appointments’ as the service with which they need assistance. Other commonly cited needs include help selecting the right specialist and support for repetitive administrative tasks such as prescription refills. What most of these services have in common is that they do not require enormous IT investments to be developed and provided.

The ‘new normal’ for patients includes a stronger and more proactive participation in personal health matters.

The starting point for a successful digital health communication strategy is to realize your existing patient is a healthcare consumer. This will help you fully realize the implications for your existing patients and allow you to design strategies that will be effective in satisfying their needs and achieving better health outcomes. But satisfying their needs is hardly enough. To improve outcomes, you should be aiming for astonishment with your level of care and service. Because then those patients will generate better health and quality of life for themselves, and referrals, testimonials, and new customer acquisition will automatically follow.

As previously said, experience is what drives online and offline advocacy, so in order for your existing patients to become advocates you need to deliver them that experience not only through your products but also through effective and valued communication tools and content. In order to design the experience expected by the patient we will need to discuss it with our patients and analyze their answers. One thing that we quickly learn is that their perception of quality of care or innovation is perhaps not aligned with ours.

Many organizations make the mistake of paying more attention to the specific products they offer (that is, drugs, devices) than to the benefits and experiences produced by these products and the communication tools/activities developed for them. These organizations suffer from marketing myopia. They are so captured by their products that they focus only on existing wants and lose sight of underlying patient needs. They forget that a product is only a tool to solve a patient problem.[ii] A manufacturer of a cancer drug may think that the customer needs a drug. But what the patient really needs, besides healing from cancer, is quality of life, convenience, comfort, transparent information, support, and reassurance. These manufacturers will have trouble if a new product is introduced that serves the same customer’s needs better or less expensively. The patient will have the same need but will want the new product.

By designing and orchestrating several online services and digital tools, they create a brand experience for patients. Health-related IoT technologies are just a trivial part of the problem for the Digital Revolution that the healthcare industry is facing while it navigates a chaotic landscape. Specifically for pharma companies, the time of rich pipelines and blockbusters ended long ago. In addition, generics are gaining more and more ground. And with a patient more informed, empowered, and, consequently, more demanding, pharma companies will need to focus more and more on creating value ‘beyond the pill’. This implies having a long-sighted approach and a move, for example, to a range of value-added services, most of which can be digital.

[i] Biesdorf, S. and Niedermann, F. (2014), McKinsey Digital Patient Survey.

[ii] Kotler, P. and Armstrong, G. (2014), Principles of Marketing, 15th edition. Harlow: Pearson Education.

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About the author:

Letizia Affinito (@laffinito) is the co-author of Socialize Your Patient Engagement Strategy published by Gower. Founder and CEO of Brandnew MC, she has worked for over 20 years in Strategic Marketing Communications both as manager and consultant. She has advised several multinational companies and organizations on online/offline communication strategy matters.

Letizia has a PhD in Management and teaches as Adjunct Professor at leading international universities and business schools. Her education includes the Case Method Teaching Seminar (Part I and II), the Executive Program in Digital Marketing at Harvard Business School, and the Young Managers Executive Programme at INSEAD.

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