The Affordable Care Act has already been the catalyst for changes in how insurance is obtained, how care is provided, and how payments are made. And regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court overturns health care reform in June, a market shift is underway. 

Insurance companies now need to market themselves to individuals, not just employers: a brave new world for some. Changes in pay models are on the horizon, as the concept of outcome-based health management grows. And the industry (particularly commercial payers) is battling a negative industry image, all against the backdrop of an increased demand for customer service. 

It is clear that the landscape for health insurance payers is dramatically changing. Layered onto this is the explosion of social media, creating an opportunity for payers to not only market themselves using innovative tools, but to engage with their customers in highly accessible and customized ways. 

Whether it’s Facebook, LinkedIn, or YouTube, social media is a big part of people’s lives. And they’re increasingly turning to these communities for health care information. A recent PwC consumer survey showed that more people now turn to the Internet (48 percent) to make decisions about their health care than turn to doctors (43 percent). A similar survey by Accenture found that more than three-quarters of consumers went online to seek information about insurers. 

While many payers have invested significantly in portal and Web technologies over the last decade, few have mastered the social media channel as a way to engage with customers. Engagement is the single most important differentiator between these new forums and its predecessors. Payers that are succeeding have found ways to interact meaningfully, and are using social media platforms to enhance their brands, educate broad audiences, and significantly raise the bar for customer service.

Knowing the audience

For both government and commercial payers, when it comes to social media, it is critical to know and understand the audience, focusing not only on content, but how it will be used.

Companies with strong wellness programs, for example, have been able to extend the value of existing programs by creating new, socially-enhanced versions of their programs. Humana’s HumanaVille is one such endeavor, taking advantage of the increasing number of seniors who are actively engaging online.  HumanaVille is a dynamic social world filled with information, tools, games, and forums for seniors to get educated on wellness.

Independence Blue Cross is building on its customers’ desire for healthier lifestyles, as well as the predominance of smart phones, with its “Healthy Steps” campaign, which includes not only a Facebook page, Twitter handle and blog, but the IBX Health Steps Pedometer app, downloadable from iTunes and the Android Marketplace.

Government payers are also targeting specific audiences with new applications. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid recently partnered with Text4Baby, a free mobile information service, to promote enrollment in both Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The CMS program provides pregnant women and new mothers with free text messages on important health care issues, as well as details on how to get their children registered for Medicaid.

Change brings opportunities

Health care reform has already brought many changes, and there is no end in sight. And, while it is difficult for payers, providers and consumers to navigate the ongoing changes, the environment creates a unique opportunity for payers to help educate their constituents. Social media enablespayers to educate and connect with their customers in unprecedented ways. 

Many seniors have begun to use social media sites including blogs and Facebook to research their Medicare Advantage options. And many payers are stepping up, providing FAQs, customer experiences, and other supplemental insurance information via social channels. 

On the business-to-business side, while most Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) have relied on listservs to get important information to providers, Palmetto GBA, a subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina, is using Facebook and blogs to engage their providers in a whole new way by promoting programs and other events online. These new methods offer enhanced customization of information.

For commercial payers interacting directly with consumers, the social media platform enables sharing news about new treatments or drugs for patients who have opted to receive information about a certain ailment. Steaming video, fielding questions via Twitter, and online live group chats all provide additional opportunities for real-time engagement with customers. 

Advancing the industry’s image

Social media provides a unique avenue for combatting the negativity that often surrounds the industry.  Rather than sitting idly by as issues develop into problems, companies can deal with complaints in an expeditious, public manner. Public attempts to dissolve disputes also show that a company is dedicated to its customers, which may go overlooked if conflict resolution for the firm remains private. 

Companies embracing social media understand that the open nature of these interactions means that they must take the good with the bad.  While increased transparency and improved responsiveness will positively benefit brand image overall, any business will still likely have its dissenters.  A well-prepared company will have monitoring programs in place for both good and bad commentary, and the capability to react quickly in case of emergency (or hopefully, to prevent one). 

Quick responses are crucial in the social world; an issue Friday evening cannot be allowed to grow over the weekend until the team returns on Monday morning. The response team will also be most effectively functional if they don’t need to wait for either a legal team or bureaucratic approval. Social media training programs will help those responsible for reacting to know their limits, and will ensure that company policies, rules, and applicable regulations are respected and followed.

Socially responsible, legally compliant

The potentials of social media can’t be addressed without acknowledging privacy and compliance requirements. HIPAA requires that all personally identifiable healthcare information be kept private.  Medicare is also has its own compliance requirements, particularly when it comes to marketing Medicare Advantage Plans.  However, the options available to the social media marketer are so vast that there are plenty of ways to create valuable content without infringing on anyone’s privacy. 

Engagement benefits

As media continues to become more social, great opportunities are opening up for healthcare companies of all types and sizes to improve their interactions with their customers. The industry is shifting dramatically and is expected to continue over both the short and long-term. There are ways for both commercial and government payers to engage and educate their customers in new ways, using social media. The dynamics have shifted from a monologue to a dialogue, and companies which respond well to this transition will gain new insights into their customers’ needs and desires and be able to react accordingly. It’s no longer sufficient to exist in the space and be seen: social-savvy consumers are now expecting to interact, and to feel like they have a purpose for doing so. 

A well thought-out social media strategy, with attention to content, a strong monitoring system, and a respect for privacy needs and concerns will lead to a health care provider which meets these new stakeholder requirements and actively engages customers. Ultimately that is what will differentiate payers from their competition. 

Clare DeNicola is principal of NY-based communications firm, the 10 company, where she helps healthcare, insurance and technology firms use marketing and communications internally and externally.  She has more than 25 years of business experience, including eight years as CEO of IVANS where she worked directly with both commercial and government payers and providers to leverage technology to improve claims processing.

 

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