The flight to digital in healthcare mirrors what has been happening across every sector and segment of society. Most healthcare practitioners are witnessing new and changing customer journeys (84%), and nearly three-quarters (73%) agree there has been a surge in the number of existing customers using digital channels.

The way that life is experienced won’t be the same even as the pandemic subsides. It forced people to embrace new digital channels and interaction behaviours. While some changes are temporary, the direction of the shift is definitely towards ‘digital-first.’ Switching to digital-first wouldn’t fly post-pandemic if the patients themselves weren’t on-board with the new paradigm. In fact, in a 2021 survey, 67% of US adults stated they would prefer at least some telehealth visits in the future.3 Cost is a consideration, with respondents saying they wouldn’t choose the virtual option if it costs more than an in-person visit. Happily, it looks like the reverse is true. Virtual visits are estimated to save consumers an average of $141 per visit compared to in-person visits at urgent care. They also appear to reduce the burden on stretched healthcare providers, as patients who had virtual visits had 19% fewer visits to the ER or urgent care locations than those who didn’t.4

According to the AMA, healthcare professionals are also seeing benefits beyond COVID-19 compliance and reducing workloads. Telehealth, in particular, is becoming a highly valued front-line service, with the majority (85%) of physicians saying it has increased timeliness of care and helped them deliver high-quality care (75%).5

As we can see in Figure 1 below, healthcare practitioners and senior executives acknowledge that digital is accelerating as a care channel. But while they recognise the importance of the channel, perhaps their progress is not as great as they’d expect:

  • Most (81%) agree they’ve had to accelerate their plans in the last six months (a period of time that roughly corresponds to the second half of 2021) even though at the time of taking the survey, the pandemic had been underway for well over a year.
  • Similarly, 90% recognise the need to react quicker to patient demands, but while 77% of senior executives are seeing budget increases, only 66% of practitioners are. Could it be that these additional resources have not yet been allocated to their intended destination?

Figure 1: Thinking about the importance of virtual care to your organisation (e.g., video-based, telehealth), to what extent do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements? (‘Strongly agree’ and ‘Agree’ responses only)

Sample size = 366
Source: Adobe/Econsultancy, Digital Trends Survey, Q4 2021

In its Return to Health: Moving Beyond Dollars and Cents on Realizing the Value of Virtual Care (2021) report, the AMA reveals the temporary nature of many of the allowances in healthcare and reimbursement policies introduced during the pandemic. According to the association, this uncertainty is holding clinicians back as they seek to determine whether they will be able to continue their virtual care programs once the pandemic ebbs.

Indeed, before they’re able to fully measure the value of digitally-enabled care, clinicians, payer executives, and policymakers are looking for evidence that goes beyond short-term financial gain, says the AMA. That said, the report also outlines how virtual care providers can make sure their offerings deliver real value at the point of use.6

The mood is certainly optimistic. Elsewhere in our survey, 82% of senior executives either ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ that the pace of change will persist for the foreseeable future and that the shift experienced in 2020-21 has “rewired our customers [patients] to be digital-first” (82%). The pandemic, it seems, was just the catalyst for change. Clearly, we can expect to see further, significant developments in digital healthcare.

Telehealth is here to stay. It’s not whether telehealth will be offered, but how best to offer telehealth services as we move towards what we’re terming digitally-enabled care—which is not just hybrid care, but more so fully integrated in-person and virtual care based on clinical appropriateness,” Meg Barron, AMA Vice President of Digital Health Innovations.7

Patient Power

Customer experience should be a direct reflection of customer expectation. During the pandemic, those expectations became significantly more exacting. Despite turbulent times, leading organisations in every sector pulled out all the stops to meet challenging circumstances and, in doing so, revealed the realm of the possible. From curbside pick-up in retail to mobile-first financial advice, there seemed to be an explosion in not just digital-first but customer-first services.

Today’s patients aren’t comparing their provider’s experience with their direct competitor. They’re pitting them against Netflix, Best Buy, and Capital One. Consumerisation has come to healthcare. Patients now want to shop around, and the information is – or, at least, should be – at their fingertips.

The best customer experience you can have when buying a complex product is online because of access to information. Now, what’s interesting is that most people in our industry feel like consumers need access to a human to get the kind of help they need. But I look at every single time that we fail to convert somebody online and have to refer them into the call centre as a personal failure of mine.”

Phillip Morelock
SVP, Chief Digital Officer – eHealth, Inc.

But, unlike changing your checking account, if the call centre experience is below par, not all patients have autonomy when choosing their healthcare providers. Most Americans’ choice of primary care providers or specialists is restricted by their insurance plan. In fact, generally, the first question that a would-be patient asks when calling to schedule an appointment with a new doctor is, “do you take XYZ insurance?” Similarly, unless patients pay to go private in the UK, most are limited to the services the National Health Service (NHS) chooses for them.

This does look set to change. Virtual consultations are the preferred method of a third of millennials and 41% of Generation Z. These two consumer segments now make up the largest proportion of the US working-age population. Their biggest demand for employment isn’t a high salary, it’s healthcare benefits – on their terms.8 As a result, employers will need to make sure their healthcare offerings are aligned with those expectations. That means offering choice, and that means digital.

Robbie Schwietzer wrote about the imperative for employers to support the trend to digital healthcare and employees’ expectations. Now Chief Product Officer for text-based primary care provider, 98point6, he knows all about marrying cross-sector customer expectations with healthcare. He was formerly Vice President at Amazon Prime9:

Offering a modern benefit option that aligns with evolved workforce expectations must be done right. As I learned while developing Prime at Amazon, it’s not enough to offer people something that’s simply cost-effective […] The accessibility of telemedicine doesn’t just benefit employees — it also benefits employers by driving early and frequent use, which ultimately leads to better health outcomes and lower costs of care. That’s why more employers are turning to technology-enabled solutions that allow employees to engage with care in a way they’re familiar with: on-demand through their phones.10

 Naturally, those traditional medical providers who are unwilling or unable to bring digital-first solutions to the table will find strong challengers in the raft of digital disruptors, like 98point6, who can combine seamless experiences with robust health advice. More than half (57%) of our healthcare survey respondents concur: “new market entrants are disrupting our business today.” Given the flight to digital and rising expectations, you might expect this figure to be higher. Still, the simple fact is that many legacy providers simply don’t understand the competitive threat. Schwietzer’s point hammers home that disruption is looming large and will occur sooner than traditionalists think.

Some legacy providers have recognised the need to get moving. Take Mercy Health, for example. Mercy Health is a nearly 150-year-old hospital and healthcare provider. Built on traditional foundations in patient care, before the pandemic the institution was already working to move to more digital interactions without losing the intensely personal experience it had spent decades fostering. Online friction had become commonplace in healthcare, lagging behind experiences in retail and hospitality.

Mercy Health had begun working with its data to allow patients to pay bills online, schedule appointments and view lab results, but COVID-19 meant all digital work had to be diverted to responding to and managing the crisis. Instead of sending the hospital’s digital transformation off-course, it accelerated it, producing content, innovating booking systems and driving even better, personalised experiences.11

Hit the Target

Having been forced exclusively online for a time, patients and consumers will have dealt with a number of inconveniences – but have also noted the benefits. If it means no more long periods spent in waiting rooms for a scant few minutes’ attention in a face-to-face consultation with a physician, a video call or self-assessment app is an attractive alternative and they’ll be keen to switch. The demand for information-powered convenience means there’s been a huge drive towards self-service online, from comparing insurance quotes to managing investments. Similarly, multi-tasking – organising a loan via mobile while waiting for a repair at the auto shop or collecting Amazon parcels at the grocery store.

Today, healthcare is no exception and it’s an area of customer experience that executives are actively investing in.

Overall, healthcare respondents to our survey focused on mobile experiences as their primary area for investment in 2022, a tactic that is supported by the observation that 41% of executives and 40% of practitioners plan to invest in such features as using mobile when checking-in at clinics, obtaining prescriptions and paying. Of course, using mobile devices to conduct such transactions when dealing with healthcare providers is by now second nature to consumers who regularly whip out their phones to pay for their meals in restaurants and to place grocery orders.  There are clear advantages for both healthcare providers and patients in going mobile-first: the ability to use it across physical and virtual settings being just one.

However, providers must proceed with caution. Nearly two-thirds of millennials (65%) and half of Gen Z adults (49%) have concerns about the privacy of their health information and personal data, particularly given Apple’s announcement that it is working on technology in iPhones to detect depression and cognitive decline.12 Investing in mobile clearly also means investing in privacy.

This will be doubly important given the secondary focus on personalisation. While pharma companies like Roche are pushing the boundaries of biology by creating personalised medications.13 healthcare providers are exploring the slightly more prosaic benefits of providing personal treatment plans.

Figure 2: What are the top two areas of focus for customer experience investment in your organisation?

Sample size = 414
Source: Adobe/Econsultancy, Digital Trends Survey, Q4 2021

Delving deeper into the survey findings illustrated in Figure 2, it’s interesting that senior executives are significantly more likely than practitioners (44% vs. 33%) to say that their organisation is planning to invest in developing personalised (patient) plans based on connected health data. It would be reasonable to assume that senior leaders are generally looking towards the realm of the possible and desirable, while practitioners are more pragmatic. Practitioners may be tempering their enthusiasm about investing in personalised plans, aware of the data and privacy challenges this could present. Like many trends in digital healthcare, this is changing, especially as more leaders are coming into the healthcare sector from other more consumer-oriented industries.