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Expert: Providing Better Care by Embracing the Customer and Patient Experience

The patient and customer experiences may seem at odds, but when health systems acknowledge both experiences, they build better holistic care.
Courtesy: iStock

Picture this: You’re feeling a little under the weather for a couple of days, so you decide to visit your doctor. You call the office, schedule a time to come in, drive to the appointment, sit in the waiting room, have a conversation with your provider, receive a diagnosis and prescription for some medicine, and then head home. By all accounts, it’s a standard interaction with your healthcare system.

In this scenario, were you acting as a patient or as a customer? What if you are both?

There’s an ongoing debate in healthcare about whether individuals should be referred to as either “patient” or “customer.” Rather than an either/or statement, it’s more valuable to health systems to reframe it as both/and. People are both patients and customers at different times in their health journey, and thinking of them as such will enable health systems to create better, more nuanced experiences that lead to better outcomes and long-term loyalty.

Sendero Managing Director, Consulting, Amy Goad Courtesy: Sendero

Let’s start with the customer experience. Customers are used to making a dinner reservation via a mobile app and having their electric bill set to autopay. Why shouldn’t scheduling a doctor’s appointment or paying for a prescription be just as easy? Scheduling appointments, paying bills, and completing paperwork are tasks people do every day. Because of this, they have expectations for convenience, ease, and efficacy.

On the flip side, there’s the patient experience. Patients come to their providers when they’re vulnerable, either because they’re sick, waiting for a diagnosis, or undergoing treatment. An inherent knowledge gap exists between the patient and provider too. Because of this, a positive patient experience often comes down to compassion, thoughtful care, and thorough explanations.

In many ways, the customer and patient experiences are at odds with one another. Customers want speed, while patients want to know that their diagnosis was the result of exhaustive tests. Patients want to know their treatment plan is customized, while customers want convenient and repeatable administrative processes. When health systems acknowledge—and embrace—these two distinct experiences, they unlock new possibilities to build a better holistic experience.

Building that holistic experience starts by analyzing the end-to-end journey across the care continuum. In an individual’s lifetime, they will be both a patient and a customer. During periods of long-term care, like a pregnancy or cancer treatment, a person is primarily a patient. In other phases of their life, they’re a customer who only interacts with a health system when they come to their annual physical. While no two end-to-end journeys will be exactly the same, health systems can map typical care journeys for their patient populations.

Understanding these care journeys can enable health systems to spot weaknesses in the experience. For example, say a health system has a convoluted scheduling process. A pregnant patient comes to the health system for their prenatal care. Throughout the pregnancy, the patient isn’t likely to change providers if she is comfortable with the experience and receives the care she needs. However, if every appointment needs to be rescheduled and the provider’s hours aren’t compatible with the patient’s work schedule, she’s likely to change to another health system when she looks for a pediatrician or decides to have another child. The individual didn’t want to leave because of a negative patient experience but because of a negative customer experience.

Once a health system can point to the strengths and weaknesses of its customer and patient experiences, it can begin to prioritize strategic initiatives. To continue the previous example, implementing a streamlined scheduling tool may be an initiative that positively impacts the customer experience. At the same time, the tool might also benefit providers by giving them more autonomy over their own schedules, leading to a better patient experience. Regardless of what these initiatives look like, it’s beneficial to analyze them from the customer, patient, and provider lens.

By evaluating current systems, prioritizing strategic initiatives, and incorporating a customer/patient framework into the organization’s long-term vision, health systems can better plan to meet an individual’s needs throughout their care journey. When both the customer and patient aspects of that care journey are evaluated and accounted for, health systems are better positioned to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace and earn long-term loyalty.

Amy Goad is a managing director for management consulting firm Sendero and leads the company’s healthcare practice.