Your healthcare audience: Patient, consumer or human?

patient or healthcare consumer

Healthcare marketers used to discuss the “patient experience” within their health system. These days the focus has shifted to “consumer experience.” The reason is obvious. Retail giants like Amazon and CVS keep pushing deeper into the healthcare space. And they’re bringing retail practices and improved consumer experience with them.

It’s true that before a person becomes a patient, they are a consumer – shopping around, as they would in other retail sectors – for the best healthcare option. But even before they are consumers, they are humans. People with unique motivations and challenges. Who don’t just follow doctor’s orders, but act according to deeper internal impulses.

Patients – people – are multi-dimensional. They’re patients, consumers and humans – all wrapped into one. But they’re human first.

Let’s break down the difference between patient, healthcare consumer and human

Consider the breast cancer journey.

Upon getting a diagnosis, the first two major questions asked are:

  • Am I going to live?
  • How am I going to care for my family, pay the bills, etc. during treatment?

These are human questions.

Once she has wrapped her head around those two issues, she considers:

  • Where can I find the best doctors/treatment?

This is a consumer question – about making decisions.

Eventually she will contemplate:

  • What will be my treatment protocol?

This is a patient question.

Human first. Then consumer. Finally a patient.

The sprained ankle journey follows a similar path.

First questions might be:

  • Why did this happen to me?
  • Am I going to be able to do my favorite activities tomorrow?

These are human questions. Next questions are:

  • Where do I go to get this fixed?
  • How much will it cost?

These are consumer questions – about making decisions. Finally, the person asks:

  • How long will it take to heal?

This is a patient question

Again: Human first. Then consumer. Finally a patient.

What is patient-centric care?

Every health system offers some version of “patient-centered care.” This is about improving healthcare quality and outcomes. When care is connected, patients do better, so this gets at the very mission of the health system.

Patient-centric care is largely clinician-driven – how clinical and operational services can better serve patients. It ultimately benefits the patient, but the patient often doesn’t understand it or see it soon enough to impact decision-making.

Patient-centric care includes things like:

  • Multi-disciplinary clinics – such as a one-day multi-disciplinary clinic where newly-diagnosed cancer patients can see all the specialists they’ll need in one appointment, rather than in five separate appointments.
  • Patient education materials – such as wound care instructions, chronic condition care and management.
  • Discharge instructions – to help patients understand next steps to take.
  • Family caregiver involvement – because when loved ones are involved, patient outcomes are better.

What is consumer-centric experience?

Consumer-centric experience involves helping patients understand and choose the right care. It’s about engaging patients throughout their healthcare journey, not just for episodic healthcare needs. It means understanding that patients increasingly make their decisions based less on quality measures and more on ease/convenience and emotional considerations such as: Who feels like a truly trustworthy healthcare advisor?

Consumer-centric experience includes things like:

  • Ease – Structuring digital processes and content around the patient journey. It includes providing robust find-a-doctor data and taxonomy, online scheduling and intake forms, appointment reminders, and any functionality that helps patients easily take that next step.
  • Nurture – Developing a relationship with the patient beyond episodic visits. It includes building proactive outreach – if I’m this age, this gender, and have these underlying conditions, tell me what’s most important to maintain health and wellness.
  • Transparency – Consumers are purchasers, but healthcare purchases are particularly convoluted. As patients continue to assume greater financial responsibility for their care, they increasingly expect cost transparency.
  • Customer service – Offering feedback channels, responding to concerns, resolving issues in the channel of their choice.
  • Value propositions – Helping consumers understand why one option is better than another, and why they should choose you over the competition.

What does it mean to be human first?

To be human first means to remember the people who are your patients. Acknowledge their emotions and consider their larger motivations and challenges. Because health goals are based on our larger – human – motivations. We don’t want to be healthy for the sake of being healthy or because the doctor said we should. We want to be healthy so that we can be with our family and friends, do the activities we love, and enjoy life’s moments.

But we also must counter unique – human – challenges. We are creatures of habit. We’re deeply influenced by our social and physical surroundings. We have different inborn biological tendencies.

Where does being “human-first” show up in healthcare?

It shows up everywhere in healthcare. Or at least it should – in person-to-person interactions, in the tone we use and the imagery we share. But here are two concrete examples relevant to healthcare marketers:

  • Adherence to medical protocols – To heal from a health issue or to manage a chronic condition isn’t always about knowing the facts. Often, it’s about overcoming challenges and creating new habits. It’s about finding motivation to take the difficult steps in making change. Focusing on the facts won’t get through to the human. Instead, focus on the larger motivations that are the true reasons a person might want to create change.
  • “Stickiness” – or brand loyalty – is about reaching the human. What do people love most about your health system? Often it’s the doctors, nurses, valets – the human connections. It’s certainly not the incessant forms, the sterile environment, the deeply confusing processes. So the question becomes: How can you bring more about what is good and beautiful and human in the healthcare experience and turn it into a larger brand connection? How can your health system apps bring personalization and connection to the healthcare experience?

Why do we need to recognize the difference between patient, healthcare consumer and human?

We need to be conscious of these differences because ultimately healthcare is about humanity. It’s about making people – all people – feel better, recover from sickness, enjoy wellness. Health systems must transition from “tactical fixes” and individual care encounters to a holistic patient and consumer experience that focuses on the human.

The different stages and touchpoints in a patient and consumer journey need to be better connected across all channels. That requires that silos break down between clinical services and across hospital departments (clinical and non-clinical).

In other words:

  • Patient-centric care can’t belong to just clinicians.
  • Consumer-centric experience can’t belong to just web and marketing.
  • Everyone needs to understand that patients are human first.

What is the role of marketing and digital teams?

Here’s how marketing and digital teams can help their audiences navigate the patient-consumer-human experience:

  • Own the voice of the consumer: Keep the focus on the patient journey – and break down the gaps between touchpoints and address miscommunication during hand-offs. When there’s pushback on issues, bring it back to the healthcare journey.
  • Focus on the “attract-serve-engage” model: Digital properties like the website should attract patients, but also guide the patient through treatment, and continue to engage them after. Attract is mostly consumer-centric. Serve is patient-centric. Engage is mostly human-centric. But they all tie together.
  • Be actionable: Digital functionality and content need to be increasingly actionable. Consumers aren’t just seeking information; they want to take action. Make next steps clear and easy.
  • Be present: You are the patient’s, consumer’s and human’s trusted advisor – be there for them.

Always human first

Healthcare marketers need to focus on “patient experience” and “healthcare consumer experience.” But let’s also keep our eye on the fact that first and foremost, we all are humans. And by keeping that in mind, we’ll build better patient and consumer experiences, too.

Want to take the next step?

Ultimately, being human first means focusing on the healthcare journey and healthcare personas – the actual people who use your health system. Find out how through our Guide to Healthcare Journey Maps.

About the Author

Linda is a healthcare digital strategy leader with 20 years of progressive experience in guiding diverse health system teams to develop and execute digital experiences and infrastructures. She is passionate about improving healthcare consumer experience, while also ensuring business ROI, to help health systems expand on their broader missions to improve their communities' health and well-being.

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