Brigham and Women's Hospitals learns how to treat consumers as customers and develop the web expertise that turns them into loyal shoppers.

Healthcare companies, especially insurers and hospitals, can learn some key lessons from online retailers.

Namely, healthcare organizations must learn how to treat consumers as customers and develop the web technology and e-commerce expertise that turns them into loyal shoppers, says Brigham Health medical director for telemedicine Dr. Adam Licurse.

In a new article for the Harvard Business Review, Licurse writes that healthcare organizations can learn from retailers and others how to treat consumers as their best online customers.

“Like banks, airlines and retailers, healthcare providers will need to offer an easy, digital front-end experience to their customers,” Licurse says. “This isn’t just about building fancy new websites, but undertaking true care redesign: becoming adept at delivering high-quality, cost-effective virtual care through telehealth and digital tools.”

The learning curve for turning insurers and hospitals into more digitally driven organizations engaged with customers is steep, Licurse writes. For example, retailers know how to build and operate e-commerce systems that give customers options to research and buy products online in a way that’s easy and convenient, he writes. “Retailers know they have to find the right blend of digital convenience and in-person service,” Licurse says.

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Like banks, airlines and retailers, healthcare providers will need to offer an easy, digital front-end experience to their customers.

Health insurers build and operate websites with self-service tools that plan members use to buy insurance and manage their benefits once they have coverage. Likewise, hospitals and health systems have web sites and digital programs built around patient care for within the walls of the hospital or physician offices, Licurse says.

But just as retailers learned consumers want to use the web and e-commerce to shop when they want and how they want, healthcare organizations need to learn the same lesson or risk losing customers or market share.

“Healthcare providers, like retailers and other traditionally in-person businesses, need to prepare for a future where technology companies, focused solely on delivering care virtually, increasingly meet the needs of patients more conveniently and efficiently,” Licurse writes. “Providers can either cede market share and volume to these companies, or beat them at their own game by scaling their own virtual care services.”

At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is adjacent to Harvard Medical School and with Massachusetts General Hospital operates Partners HealthCare, the largest healthcare provider in Massachusetts, the health system is borrowing web marketing tactics from retailers to grow its digital healthcare program, he says.

In 2015 the hospital began outfitting provider offices and training doctors and other clinicians on how to do video office visits via telehealth and do remote patient monitoring. Brigham and Women’s first focused on finding patients who would not need to come into an office for care but could instead be treated through telehealth. Next the hospital chose proactive providers willing to open up their schedule to see patients online and surveyed patients after their telehealth visit to measure customer satisfaction, Licurse says.

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Of 600 initial video doctor visits, 97% of patients were satisfied with the experience and would recommend the program, Licurse writes. 74% of patients also noted the telehealth visit improved their relationship with a Brigham and Women’s provider and 87% of patients said they would have needed to come into an office to see their doctor in person if it weren’t for the virtual visit, Licurse says.

In his article, Licurse writes he used Brigham and Women’s telehealth program as an example of how healthcare insurers and providers can use web technologies and digital marketing from retailers and other customer-facing industries to focus on consumers as customers and not just as patients and plan members.

“Strategic decisions providers make today will determine how ready they will be for a future where patients expect their healthcare to be as seamless as online shopping, if they are to remain loyal,” he writes.

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