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New Approaches to Healthcare Consumerism Examined at ATLAS Conference

September 20, 2017
by Rajiv Leventhal
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A health system's brand is nothing more than its patient experience, says one health system's chief consumer officer
Although marketing healthcare services to consumers was once considered taboo and unethical, leading health systems with innovative approaches around improving patient access and experience are now realizing the importance in doing so. 
 
At the ATLAS (Annual Thought Leadership and Access Symposium) conference in Boston, Mass., inside the Fairmont Copley Plaza, multiple digital health and consumer experience thought leaders spoke about how healthcare has become more of a consumer business in recent years. 
 
Matt Gove joined Atlanta-based Piedmont Healthcare as the organization's chief marketing officer, coming from a marketing position at a safety-net hospital in Georgia—where his job was to reposition a 120-year-old organization that was in dire straights—and before that, coming from a position in which he did marketing for commercial real estate. Gove, who now has the title of chief consumer officer at Piedmont, is in charge of marketing, communications, patient experience, community benefits, and government relations for the seven-hospital health system. "I have always believed that your brand is nothing more than the sum of a patient's experiences with your organization. That's all it is," says Gove. "So experience was something we needed to be focused on [early on] and it also [serves] as a way to distinguish yourself as a brand. The [challenge] then became meshing that with the business needs of the organization," he says.
 
Indeed, as a marketer, Gove's job is to drive revenue into the system, and he realized quickly at Piedmont that the system was organized around hospitals and the high-end services that happen inside them. "That's true of most health systems, with some integrated insurance and delivery networks [as exceptions]," he says. "So you [could] apply those marketing principles into the business that exists, but if you actually stop and look at the data and how patients work their way into the system, the place that the system seems to place the most emphasis on isn't actually the driver of volume into the organization." 
 
That was an "important lightbulb" that went off for Gove when he was looking to develop a marketing strategy for Piedmont. After combing through the organization's data, Gove found that 92 percent of Piedmont's patient interactions (face-to-face) were in ambulatory and outpatient settings, with only 8 percent in inpatient systems. "What I [assumed] about Piedmont was that every strategy was organized and rotated around its seven hospitals. The hospitals were the sun that [everything] orbited around. But then I got to understanding that the patient experience was about what happened outside the hospital—not just inside it," he says. 
 
To this point, Gove notes that some healthcare marketers focus on the services that make the most money—transplants for instance—but they ignore the fact that zero transplant patients start at that exact point in their healthcare journey. More likely, they will enter at a different access point in the system. "Healthcare should really be the ultimate consumer business, but all we have been doing is applying consumer marketing tactics to the business. What we should be doing is digging into the behavior of our consumers. You know," Gove says somewhat facetiously, "At the heart of consumerism is the consumer." 
 
At Piedmont, most people enter the system as low-acuity patients. It's this type of patient who treats healthcare like a consumer would, while the high-acuity patient does not treat healthcare in that regard. Gove says that the data his team pulled showed that high-acuity patients mostly stick with the system down to the highest-acuity care that they need from the organization. Meanwhile, the low-acuity patient typically exercises more choice, is less loyal to an individual health system, and thus is the target for Gove's team's marketing efforts. "You want to focus on consumers when they are actually acting like consumers, which is in that narrow band of visits when they are dealing with relatively small health issues," he says. 
 
Doctors and marketing folks will sometimes debate about whether to call the system's users "patients" or "customers," and Gove said there is a line that a consumer crosses to become a patient—a line that is connected to the severity of the condition, the emotion that is attached, and the trust the patient has in the organization's providers in order to move to the next level of care.
 
To this point, not all doctors are comfortable, even today, with marketing their services. But as Aaron Martin, executive vice president, chief digital and innovation officer at Seattle-based Providence St. Joseph Health, says, much of the concern about healthcare marketing in the past has been centered around a fear of driving up healthcare utilization and unnecessary visits. "But we actually want to do the opposite," Martin, a former executive at Amazon, says at the ATLAS conference. "We want to convert the relationship from a sick care relationship to a healthcare relationship. It's about engaging the person so you earn the right to offer things like content that will [potentially] lead to a consumer avoiding an unnecessary visit," he says. 
 
As such, at Piedmont, it all started with understanding the consumer journey, Gove attests. "Where do people get seen inside of our system? For many, the patient experience has been about 'procedures and treatment,' and to the government it still is, [in a sense]. To my experience team, it's about 'post-treatment and post-visit'—the stuff that's been neglected forever," he says.
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