The direction for healthcare providers is clear: as patients become more empowered, there will be a greater expectation from their providers to deliver a streamlined customer experience.

Superior customer experience has become one of the most coveted differentiators for businesses, but traditionally this metric has not been applied to the healthcare industry. Now, however, there is some shifting in how society views the provision of healthcare, and patients are beginning to see themselves as consumers. With competition for healthcare dollars becoming stiffer and federal reimbursement to providers forming closer ties to patient satisfaction, it seems like no industry could be better served by undergoing a customer experience makeover. In order to understand this shift in the landscape better, it is important to look closely at the digital investments made in response to the transparency, personalization, and ease-of-use expectations for this new wave of consumers.

Where Does Patient Dissatisfaction Come From?

Only 66% of individuals in a recent survey stated that they are satisfied with the core benefits their provider offers. In a 2015 U.S. News ranking of 5,000 hospitals on the basis of patient satisfaction, only 17 made the magazine’s “honor roll.” The standards for this honor roll didn’t even demand perfection – the hospitals simply had to earn top scores on six out of 16 medical specialties.

Unlike most other consumer scenarios, people who need healthcare don’t have as much control or as many choices as they would like. They are often in the position of signing agreements, ahead of time, to pay unpredictable fees and charges, while feeling vulnerable and unable to research alternatives. Patients should never be in a position where their doctors aren’t sure of the cost of procedures they recommend (or require) for their patients, or have excellent medical care lead to disappointing personal outcomes. Within this volatile environment, it is easy to see how dissatisfaction can flare up at any point along the patient’s medical journey.

Why Customer Experience Matters

Every healthcare provider is well aware of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) continually evaluating patient feedback. It administers patient surveys that ask about experiences with providers across the entire healthcare landscape, and its “Pay for Performance” initiative uses the results of those surveys to determine its financial support to those providers. Kaiser Health News notes in U.S. New’s report that “With federal funding on the line, many hospitals are emphasizing patient satisfaction.”

Shaping the Future of Customer Experience in Healthcare

With the stakes high and track records uneven for many healthcare providers, the industry can learn a lot from the retail world. Recent digital innovations throughout the commercial marketplace have focused on engaging customers with high-touch connections and delighting them with streamlined omnichannel experiences. Reimagining customer satisfaction in the healthcare realm can follow similar patterns. These can best be understood by dividing patient/consumer needs into three main categories: to be respected, known and guided.

1. Respect the Patient/Consumer:

As mentioned above, few industry examples exist where consumers can’t get information about the real cost of a service until after it’s been received. This represents a huge transparency issue in the industry, resulting in patient skepticism, distrust and frustration. And, when people get frustrated, they call their provider to voice their grievances – or consider a new provider. Some industry leaders are deferring to digital in addressing the problem.

Machine Empathy

Humana uses artificial intelligence (AI) to assist its customer support representatives in being empathetic to those upset customers. Its AI tool, dubbed Cogito Dialog, is trained to listen for signs of emotional stress in callers. These signs include changes in voice tone or instances where callers and representatives are talking over each other. Cogito Dialog delivers real-time feedback to representatives, encouraging them to adjust their strategy to better communicate with unhappy customers. Investing resources into being more empathetic to people’s real needs is beginning to comply with a new level of respect for customers.

Digital Approaches to Easing Wait Times

A survey of patients found that 97% are frustrated by wait times in doctors’ offices, often because there isn’t much transparency into when they will be called up or how they can appropriately use their time while waiting. To make the waiting easier for patients, digital signage providers like Spectrio and Signera create custom video content for medical waiting rooms. Patients uniformly report that this curated combination of helpful and entertaining content makes the time go by faster. Other digital solutions include the QLess mobile phone app that enables customers to use virtual check-in and get status updates on their mobile devices.

A completely different approach to eliminating long waits in medical clinics is the rapid growth of telemedicine. This delivery channel offers financial as well as convenience benefits, and is being rolled out in various healthcare markets across the country. An example is Louisiana’s E-Doc service, which allows any state resident to see a doctor through live video conferencing over a mobile device. This service, available 24 hours a day, substitutes for an urgent care visit and guarantees wait times of less than 30 minutes.

2. Know the Patient/Consumer:

Personalization is another instrumental factor driving effective customer experiences today. One trending response to the need for personalization in the medical world is the rising adoption of remote patient monitoring, an “Internet of Things” (IoT) technology forecasted to be worth $1.2 billion by 2022. Since the practice of medicine is always centered around the effort to fully understand exactly what’s happening within the patient’s body, any technology that provides a view into an individual’s physiology is likely to lead to better outcomes. Here are just a handful of the many uses for IoT devices in healthcare:

Triage at a Distance

Information Week describes a remote cardiac monitoring system by Geneva Health Solutions that alerts emergency room personnel to the precise status of each individual patient. The software manages data from cardiac devices regardless of manufacturer, facilitating triage by weeding out the people who have harmless conditions, from those that do.

Patients and Athletes Both Benefit From Wearables

Patient wearables are likewise finding a growing market among providers eager to improve consumer health outcomes. Monitoring devices such as Zephyr Anywhere’s BioPatch are used within hospitals – the small patch worn by the patient alerts nurses if help is needed. And the maker of this medical device, a subsidiary of Medtronic, markets its BioPatch to athletes and sports teams, as well as to medical facilities. The potential uses of physiological information go far beyond the medical world, although it may be in healthcare that they can do the most immediate good.

3. Guide the Patient/Consumer:

Next to direct medical treatment, the one item that patients need most is information – which is why it’s critical that providers make that information accessible and easy to digest. Virtually every patient and responsible family member is hungry for the fullest possible understanding of the patient’s physical condition. They also urgently want help with navigating the dense tangle of billing and insurance paperwork. Recognizing the huge market behind this unmet need for information, healthcare industry powerhouses are stepping into the gap. They have adopted some intriguing technologies to improve digital access to patient information.

Cigna just added fingerprint ID technology to its iOS and Android mobile app, enabling patients to easily access their personal information. The Cigna app lets patients manage their health savings accounts, compare drug prices, book doctor’s appointments, submit claims and pay bills.

A Wide Open Door for Digital Entrants in Healthcare

Transparent markets and an increasing range of consumer choices means that maintaining the status quo is no longer an option for healthcare payers and providers. When it comes to a great digital customer experience, consumers are looking for transparency, personalization and ease of use. Finding the next healthcare disruptor with a knack for superior customer experience is only a matter of time. With so much focus on enabling consumers to be in control of their health, one wonders whether consumer digital giants such as Amazon and Google will plant their flag and take healthcare to new heights, leaving traditional healthcare providers in the dust.

The direction for healthcare providers is abundantly clear – if they want to retain their increasingly empowered patients, they must deliver a streamlined customer experience.