What is consumerism in healthcare?

What is consumerism in healthcare? There are so many interpretations out there. Is it Consumer Orientation? Shopping? Selecting providers based on cost? Consumer Experience? Consumer Engagement in their own care?

To me it’s about winning new patients and retaining existing patients. As health systems trudge toward full vertical integration to deliver on population health, they have to face reality: it’s a war out there and you’re fighting for every patient at every level of care. For a long time, there’s been recognition of competition at the tertiary level – many hospitals advertise their unique capabilities in cancer care, ortho and other lucrative high end services. But in a population health management world, the real locus of competition is at the primary care level, and more generally, entryway services.

Primary care patients have more choices than ever. For consumer packaged goods marketers, the everyday top of mind questions is: how do I make my consumers choose my product over the competition? In this new health care world, the product is primary care. With consumers easily able to compare options, health systems need to identify the unique value of their primary care docs and – better sit down for this one – I’m talking about one value proposition across the entire network of primary care services.

Am I crazy? How on earth could anyone attempt (presume?) to “package” a vast number of practice groups and independent docs as one? It’s not easy, but it’s doable. The trick is identifying a common practice or core principle than unites them.

Recently, my firm was engaged by a local law firm that wanted to increase its presence throughout New England. A key to success was building its brand. Let me digress for a moment to describe what I mean by “brand.” Brand, “capital B,” refers to the entirety of the offer. Brand building means communicating what the business offers its consumers that it unique, compelling and ownable. The “little b” is the visual identity (or logo) that represents the offered item in visual media.

The law firm operated as a loose collection of independent practitioners, with some identification of practice areas within the firm. Largely, however, attorneys’ livelihoods depended on whatever business they could attract on their own. Perhaps as a consequence, the attorneys did the work themselves – no delegation to junior staff, as one might find in the fancier, bigger name, law firms. This level of engagement on the part of senior level attorneys translated into a consumer benefit: direct access to senior level expertise. They take clients’ calls, they work weekends to meet clients’ deadlines, they do the legwork to solve client’s issues. The essence of the unique, compelling and ownable idea on which their brand was built became: “Practicing law with our sleeves rolled up.” The advertising campaign that communicated this idea not only attracted new business, it also attracted new attorneys.

Health systems could see the same results. Expressing a unique, compelling and ownable message to consumers is always a positive thing. The challenge is the hard work required to not only identify the common trait that speaks to the whole. It is also ensuring that the primary care network can effectively and consistently deliver on the promise. Is it an exercise in herding cats? Perhaps. But name a physician that would oppose health system assistance with increasing its attractiveness to patients and providers. That, in essence, is consumerism.

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