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Overcoming Healthcare’s Mountain of Mistrust – Part 1: Providers

According to research from the analytics and opinion-polling firm Gallup, Americans’ faith and trust in their institutions are on the decline. Even the healthcare industry, which has long enjoyed some of the highest trust ratings among the public, has also seen a drop in consumer confidence. Gallup’s data shows that Americans’ trust in the healthcare system is only three points above its all-time low in 2007.

Today’s consumers are looking at everything with a critical eye. And your healthcare organization isn’t immune, even if you have a long and proud history of serving your community. You will have to take the time to earn and keep consumers’ trust.

In this series, Marlana Voerster and I will be by your side as we navigate the often-perilous journey of building trust among healthcare consumers. We’ll provide the insights and strategy you need to address concerns and build rapport in three areas of healthcare:

  • This article, Part 1, focuses on providers
  • Part 2 will focus on payers (health insurance)
  • Part 3 will focus on medical-device organizations

First, the bad news in trust for providers

As Gallup’s in-depth analysis shows, consumers’ assessments of the care and service they receive from those in the healthcare space are down virtually across the board since 2010. Hospitals, hospital emergency rooms and nursing homes saw significant drops, with nursing homes last in consumers’ assessments of the healthcare industry. But physicians have seen the largest decrease in consumer satisfaction in the provider segment, with a 15-percentage-point plummet among respondents rating the care they received from physicians as either “Excellent” or “Good.”

Gallup notes that there are many factors that may account for these changes, such as:

  • COVID-19 and the related controversies over mask mandates, vaccines, etc.
  • Healthcare staffing problems
  • Increasing healthcare costs
  • The opioid crisis

All of that is … not great. But there are a few decent bits of news in the survey results.

Now for the good (or, at least, not as bad) news in trust

Among the same survey respondents in Gallup’s polling, nurses saw only a relatively minor drop in consumer satisfaction (from 88% “Excellent” or “Good” in 2010 to 82% in 2023). And walk-in and urgent-care clinics saw a 2-percentage-point increase in satisfaction ratings.

Telemedicine and virtual visits, which Gallup had not included in its prior surveys, made a strong debut in the late 2023 poll. Telemedicine’s 52% satisfaction rating puts it nearly on par with walk-in clinics, urgent care clinics and hospitals in consumer confidence and actually ahead of hospital emergency rooms.

So what do these results mean for your trust-building efforts?

There’s a lot to react to in these findings. Let’s break them down a bit:

Get nurses out in front of your outreach efforts when possible

We’ve been saying for a while now that nurses, not physicians, are the lifeblood of a healthcare system. I saw this myself with my own inpatient experience. But now it’s not even close. Nurses are now by far the providers Americans trust most, even with their small drop in consumer confidence (and some of that likely can be attributed to staffing issues — more on that below).

Whenever you can, showcase nurses as the faces of your healthcare organization. It’s not always going to be practical. For example, if you’re shooting a video for YouTube about a complex surgical procedure, you’ll of course want to spotlight one or more of the surgeons who perform that procedure. But when you’re talking about the experience a consumer can expect, the team members who will care for them during their stays, patient education, your support systems and so on, consumers likely will respond better to nurses.

We understand that may not be a comfortable conversation to have with practice heads and prominent physicians within your organization. And it’s by no means fair to your physicians. Many of the reasons Gallup cites as contributing to their decline in consumers’ trust are out of their control. But no matter the reasons, physicians have some ground to gain back. You can help build consumers’ confidence by building out your physicians’ online profiles. This can help humanize them and foster trust in them before the consumer ever makes an appointment. And it doesn’t hurt to do that for your nurses as well.

Build your organization’s referral network

The fact that consumers have faltered a bit in their satisfaction with physicians doesn’t mean they’re not going to need your physicians. It just means consumers may be more likely to go off the word of their own primary care or other providers — who have already earned their patients’ trust. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to start beefing up your team’s efforts at physician-to-physician marketing and outreach.

When you have new specialty physicians join the team, make sure primary care providers (PCPs) in your area know about it. Let them know the new physician is ready to accept new patients. If the physician has a particular area of interest or expertise that would translate well to a presentation, host a lunch and learn — whether in-person or virtually. We’ve seen some clients coordinate special phone numbers and email addresses for PCPs to reach out with questions or concerns relating to their patients. This can help your providers build rapport within the communities they serve and increase their patient loads.

Start re-establishing your credentials and differentiators with consumers

Clearly, healthcare provider organizations can’t keep coasting on their reputations for excellence. Consumers are taking fresh looks at their healthcare institutions. And those eyes are on the lookout for any reason to go elsewhere.

So make sure your website, marketing collateral and other materials highlight your differentiators. Look at your value propositions wherever you can. Talk about:

  • The experience a patient can expect from your team
  • The number of patients you see in a given service line
  • Your convenient care locations
  • Your successful outcomes (especially if you can share relevant patient stories, in the patient’s voice and with photos)
  • Your team’s expertise

Real, true differentiators are going to be more important than ever. You can’t count on consumer loyalty. Make the case for why your organization is the most logical choice. If you do, consumers will respond.

Publicize your careers information

We used to see provider organizations bury their careers information in their websites’ footers or on subdomains. The thought was, “Job-seekers will find it, and it’s not important to the consumer.”

But now, with the well-documented shortages in nearly every role in healthcare organizations nationwide, more of our clients are interested in public, high-profile recruiting efforts. These can include everything from careers-focused hero banners on their homepages to prominent placement of careers links in their sites’ primary navigation.

It’s no surprise to most people who have been in a hospital or physician’s office in the last few years that staffs have been struggling to fill gaps and cover for shortages. By seeing the importance your organization places on recovery and growth, you can help boost their confidence in your team’s care. And you may even aid your recruiting efforts in the process.

Push your walk-in, urgent-care and virtual visit/telemedicine experiences

Consumers quickly grew used to walk-in clinics, urgent-care centers and virtual visits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now these have become table stakes for healthcare organizations. And consumers will go elsewhere if you don’t offer them or don’t surface them enough. There’s a reason Amazon, Walmart, Walgreens and other retailers continue to invest in the space, after all.

Consider looking at these growing services through a consumer lens. Is it easy, intuitive and seamlessly integrated with the overall patient experience? Is it quick and convenient for a consumer to find the information they need and get in to see a provider or arrange a virtual visit? If not, how can your team smooth the experience? As younger generations, such as Generation Z and Generation Alpha, start turning to your system for care, these services will only grow in importance. So it’s important to lay the foundations for success now.

Pushing these resources can also benefit patients who need to see providers in the office and hospital settings. By relieving some of the pressure from patients who can choose a walk-in clinic, urgent-care center or virtual visit, it’s likely that wait times will improve in ERs and other high-volume venues.

Speaking of which …

Be transparent about your ER wait times

With my apologies to Ben Franklin, there are actually three things in life that are certain: death, taxes and long ER wait times. When your team has done all it can to reduce the load on your ERs, make sure consumers who are checking out their options ahead of time know what kind of wait to expect from your ERs.

Current-wait-time widgets can help divert someone if their condition isn’t truly an emergency. And you should strongly encourage consumers to seek care at one of your urgent-care facilities if their condition isn’t life-threatening.

Along with that, make sure users know when they should actually go to the emergency room and when the urgent-care center is appropriate. We once worked with a client that had done significant promotion of its new urgent-care centers. Their leaders wondered if consumers knew when to go to the ER versus the urgent-care center. Their survey results found that consumers believed the urgent-care center was the place to go for a gunshot wound. Clearly, they had done their jobs too well in getting the word out. But a quick list of example conditions can help avoid these sorts of mistaken beliefs.

Make the mistrust mountain into a molehill

We work with healthcare providers nationwide to build consumer confidence and increase conversions. Our dedicated healthcare strategists understand the unique challenges healthcare organizations face. And we’ll help you find the strategies that resonate with your patient base. Contact us to learn more.

And don’t miss Part 2 of this series. We’ll discuss the trust-related challenges and opportunities specific to healthcare payers. See you then!

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Michael Adkins, Senior Content Strategist, Digital Health Strategy

As part of Perficient's Digital Health Strategy team, Michael partners with healthcare organizations to create informative, conversion-centered content for a variety of applications, including websites and blogs. Michael writes content that highlights clients’ service-line offerings, expertise in unique treatments, differentiators in competitive markets and additional factors that are important to patients.

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