As healthcare strategists, the first thing we tell our clients is that all healthcare consumers are on a journey. The story goes something like this: they’re told they or a loved one has a condition, they research and learn more about it, and then they decide to reach out for help.
It’s at that inflection point — that moment of decision — when you as the healthcare organization need to be on the consumer’s mind, whether through digital marketing, service-line content or whatever that shows the consumer that you can help.
For me, that process was a bit faster, but it was brought on by me stalling my own care for a long time beforehand. I ended up making a bad situation worse by my own mishandling.
In a way, the healthcare industry is in a similar situation. Small issues have developed into critical problems because there’s been no ability to address them, whether from lack of budget, lack of staffing or both. But many organizations are finding that they no longer have the luxury of procrastinating.
My own recent experience as a patient, filtered through my experience as a healthcare content strategist, has shown me a few things:
- The healthcare patient journey sometimes is not as cut and dry as we think
- The digital experience only goes so far for patient retention
- The battle for the future of healthcare will be won or lost by recruitment and retention of one role (and it’s not physicians)
In this first of a three-part blog series, we’ll talk about the patient journey — specifically, mine — and how it was a bit unusual but still rooted in the principles we share with our clients.
My unusual patient journey
I started feeling sick in late March. I remember, because I was on vacation from work, and I thought it was my bad luck that I was sick during vacation.
Deep in my lungs, a bacterium or fungus had infiltrated and started working its way into my system. I don’t know what got me, and I don’t know where I picked it up. The best bet is that my son brought it home from daycare, but there’s really no telling its true origins (much to my infectious-disease physician’s annoyance).
For weeks, I struggled with upper-respiratory symptoms. They got better. I got sick again. I hit myself harder with over-the-counter medicines. I felt pretty good. I got well enough to get my COVID-19 vaccinations, the second of which made me feel incredible — like I’d been injected with liquid sunshine, as I told my wife.
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(She got flu-like symptoms from both her vaccines and was bedridden for a weekend each time. She didn’t appreciate my chipperness much.)
Eventually, though, I went downhill fast. Within a couple of weeks, I couldn’t walk down a short hallway without gasping for breath. I was tired all the time, having to sleep 11 or 12 hours a night because I was waking up so often to cough and gag from the drainage. I started getting a high fever and lost my appetite.
Choose to act; choose to live
I eventually gave in to my wife and went to the nearby immediate-care center. I don’t like going to the doctor, but it’s the same system that cares for my son, so I know them and trust them.
They got me in right away, and the physician on call came in to see me. He said, “You’ve got to leave here right now and go to the emergency department. You’re the sickest person I’ve seen in some time, and I’ve been dealing with COVID patients. If you don’t get some help, I’m very concerned that you could die.”
No comparison shopping. No consideration of advanced this or board-certified that. Just the primal choice of every organism on this planet, from cavemen back to the first ocean-dwelling denizen that decided to crawl up on a beach and see what was going on up on land.
Live or die. Choose. Right now.
I chose to live. My wife got me to the emergency department, and an army of people converged on me, getting me oxygen, taking blood, giving me medicine and figuring out what to do next.
A name and a plan
The diagnosis: pleural empyema — a collection of fluid inside and outside my right lung, probably first started by pneumonia. This fluid was crushing my lung, making it hard for me to breathe. On top of that, I had loculations, which are pockets of scar tissue within the chest wall that collect fluid and make the condition harder to treat. And on top of all that, I had developed a pleural peel, which is like an orange peel that constricts the lung and prevents it from expanding.
To treat these issues, I had a thoracotomy, a procedure in which the surgeon cuts between the ribs to access the lungs. The team did an open decortication, which involved literally peeling my lung just like the aforementioned orange. They also drained my lungs and chest and did a thoracostomy, which involves using tubes to further drain liquid after surgery. I’m told one or two drains is a lot. I had three.
When and why I converted
The point of all this is that I didn’t look around for a hospital with excellent experience in thoracic surgery. I didn’t look for a surgeon with expertise in treating pleural empyema or performing open decortication.
I converted when I decided to go to that system’s immediate-care center. Why I converted was because I was pleased with the level of care the system has given my son.
So that part of my conversion process was a bit unusual. But another part was as plain-Jane as any other patient: I only ended up getting help because of the insistence of my wife. That’s why family-matriarch personas in content strategy are so important. I may be writing about the most male-specific conditions, like prostate issues or testicular cancer. But oftentimes, there’s a woman behind the actual patient — a wife, girlfriend, mother, sister, whoever — either pushing the patient to get help or researching on her own to know what’s going on. She, not the patient, is often whom I’m actually trying to reach when I write.
As straightforward as the typical patient journey is — and it often is — sometimes what brings your next patient through your door is a little more complex than you’ve planned for. Accounting for that and realizing service on multiple levels can lead to conversions down the road will help you in the long run.
In my next blog article, we’ll get into the importance of the overall patient experience (not just the digital experience) and why good consumer service is more important than ever in the modern era.