How Do Patients Make Decisions?

We do lots of things in marketing, both online and offline, to build awareness and establish our brand in the eyes of prospective patients. But is this enough to accomplish our goals? More specifically, are we doing the right things to guide patients through their selection process?

How often do we actually look at a patient’s decision-making process? We have generic models, of course, but the actual process varies by service and differing types of cases.

A fascinating case study was just published by Ragan’s Healthcare Communications News. In the article, A millennial’s trip to the ER reveals the key to hospital branding, Jessica Levco recounts a recent ER decision in the competitive Chicago market and concludes that “It’s your staff. It’s your nurses and doctors. It’s how you talk to patients” that makes the difference.

While I absolutely agree that your brand is in the people who live it every day rather than the words on a billboard, I don’t think that’s the most interesting thing in the article.

Jessica walks us through her decision making process:

  • Which hospital do my friends recommend?
  • Which hospital accepts my insurance?
  • How long is the wait?
  • What cab fare is cheapest?

This follows the classic concepts in behavioral economics about the consumer buying process. Jessica is evaluating access and convenience, minimum acceptable quality and her ability to pay.

Her evaluation tells me a number of things. First, your brand matters, but so does reputation monitoring. She apparently has no pre-conceptions about the facilities nearby, but eliminates the closest ER option on advice of a friend. In her case, she called that friend but admits reviews on Yelp were a factor. Here are two people who likely have little in the way of personal experience with the emergency departments at hospitals throughout the city, so their information is coming from third parties (many of whom are anonymous.)

Second, access and convenience are clearly on her list of priorities. Distance, time and the cost of travel are all factors for consideration, but they don’t end up becoming the decision maker.

In the end, it came down to the ability to pay – who takes her insurance, and she approaches the problem in a strange way. Rather than calling her insurance company or pulling up their website, she calls the ERs directly. It never becomes a question of one of the hospitals not taking her insurance. Rather, one is unable to answer her question at all, passing her around to voicemails and ultimately creating a frustrating experience. She interprets this as one group of employees being nicer than the other.

I think this is a little misplaced.

One group here was empowered to answer her question because they had the right information at their fingertips. Someone anticipated the question. The resources were available.

How often does your organization fail to convert patient opportunities because no one has thought the through the process? Have you promoted something only to find out that the call center dropped the ball when people called in, or someone within the department just didn’t feel like following up on consumer inquiries? How many one-time patients ultimately never return because of unhelpful staff or poor signage?

Very few healthcare organizations have a formal consumer facing sales function and so the role falls to marketing. Unfortunately, many marketing departments are hamstrung by their role as a support function and inability to push operational changes into their organizations.

Others suffer from a lack of information and resources needed to approach problems strategically.

Here are a few thoughts on things you can do to improve prospective patient conversion and retention by looking at the consumer decision-making process:

  • Key service lines should have a functional understanding of why people need their services and how they evaluate options. Look for off the shelf research that may offer those insights. In the absence of this, a few facilitated focus groups can garner some excellent insights with relatively little investment.
  • Any effort to attract patients should walk the process from end to end with assigned responsibilities and, ideally, some trackable metrics. Sitting down with the people in the process who you think will be catching what you’re throwing their way will often identify failure points in the process before you ever begin.
  • Consider using mystery shoppers. I’ve seen the insights good healthcare mystery shoppers can provide. There are so many ways healthcare organizations fail consumers today that we’re unable to see. This can give you the ammunition to get engaged in changing the overall consumer experience in your facility.
  • Focus on the things you control. This is one of the big reasons why I encourage healthcare organizations to use the Web as a call-to-action in ads and promote its role as a point of engagement. You may not be able to change the attitude of front desk staff or make the call center ask the questions you’d like, but marketing departments typically have control of the consumer’s online experience. Use that to your advantage.
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This entry was posted in Consumer Expectations, Research, User Experience by Ben Dillon. Bookmark the permalink.
Ben Dillon

About Ben Dillon

Ben’s a big picture type of guy. He loves sharing new ideas in digital marketing, keeping a watchful eye on healthcare industry trends and seeing how it all intersects. A sought-after speaker, writer, blogger and current SHSMD board member, Ben’s an influential voice in healthcare marketing, helping organizations across the country embrace online strategies to engage health consumers. Combine his industry savvy with his background in software development and you can see why he’s also an important member of Geonetric’s software team, ensuring our content management system stays a step ahead of market needs. Ben holds a master’s degree in eBusiness and strategic management from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. When he’s not traveling and evangelizing, Ben enjoys cooking with his family and playing the Big House with the University of Michigan Alumni marching band.

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