Words belie intent, says Nicholas Webb. Healthcare organizations are behind the curve in realizing how their terminologies affect the way they do business.

Take patient engagement, for example. Many healthcare organizations still see this as a nice-to-offer service for those people they treat so that they’ll remain loyal and take more of an interest in their own health and care.

But Webb, a healthcare strategist and futurist, believes providers have it all wrong. The future survival and financial viability for healthcare organizations depends on their providing a customer experience, and using information technology to provide that. Webb spoke at the opening keynote session for the CHIME/HIMSS CIO Forum in Las Vegas on Monday.

C.T. Lin, MD

Keys for providers are understanding that healthcare is becoming a consumer product, and customer experiences need to incorporate technologies such as the Internet of Things, wearables and enhanced interoperability of information.

Consumers have more options for technology, such as medical devices that enable them to take their own blood pressures and report it over time. Healthcare providers need to embrace these trends—instead, many worry about how they’ll deal with patient-reported data and information from outside the four walls of an institution.

Patient experience will be key, Webb contends. “Most people don’t do this right—if you go to a doctor and go past 15 minutes waiting for an appointment, you go past liking your doctor to hating your doctor,” he says.

Healthcare organizations evolve slowly, and they’re not realizing the urgency to change perceptions of their business—and adopt technology that enables them to make the needed transition. Webb says they must no longer look at their business as just treating sick people.

“Some organizations believe that if they just deliver care, that’s enough,” he says. His consulting firm “will not accept an organization as a client unless they call their patients consumers.” No other business today treats consumers like healthcare organizations—waiting for appointments, with lack of attention to how they perceive their treatment. “This is the only business where consumers want to give you their money and we tell them to wait on average two weeks before we can make an appointment at an inconvenient time to see them.”

As a result, technology and smartphone-based apps are giving consumers more options. “Fifty percent of clinical visits are going to digital solutions because the options are horrible,” Webb says. “Research is showing that only about 20 percent of the time do patients need to be seen in person by a clinician,” and otherwise, they can get just as much value from virtual care.

It’s not just the young people that are looking for better customer experiences, he adds. Research indicates that 97 percent of the time, people begin their search for care digitally through online searches.

Healthcare is ripe for rapid growth in consumerization and disruptive innovation. “The change is not linear; it is explosive,” Webb contends. “There’s no way to connect our technology strategy in a logical way without understanding this. The question is, do you have an innovation pipeline?”

While healthcare organizations are slow to change, executives are realizing the industry will be evolving rapidly. “Some 89 percent of healthcare organizations say they expect to change and compete on customer experience,” Webb says. “It’s not just about treating people right—it’s holistic change.”

Looking at the HIT execs in the CHIME audience, Webb noted that, “you are the change agents, and everything in the future will come from you.”

Healthcare organizations that don’t realize that healthcare will become a commodity do so at their own peril. “Your consumers are going to decide whether they are patients or consumers; words matter, and when you call someone a patient, it means you get to treat them differently than you do a consumer. Those who think of them only as patients can take that to their graves.”

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