What Three Years of Consumer Research Tells Us About Patient Access in 2020

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By Emma Smith

Since 2017, The Patient Access Journey Report has provided annual insight into how healthcare consumers search for, select, and book appointments with providers – and how their choices are changing over time – based on a 1,000-person survey. The 2019 edition underscored the premium consumers place on convenience across the various phases of the access journey. However, “it’s all about convenience,” would be an oversimplification of healthcare decision-making, as consumers take a multitude of factors into account when choosing providers and organizations to care for them.

For example, this year’s results also showed the importance of organizational brand alongside a growing role of health system websites in the provider search process. Amid mounting competitive pressure, the intersection of these dynamics indicates that health systems taking steps to deliver the convenience consumers crave may be in a unique position to gain their loyalty. 

Other key trends and implications for health systems include:

Search: Delivering the Insight Consumers Seek, Where They Look For It

Reflecting the fact that consumers are increasingly independent and inquisitive, self-research was the top way respondents found primary care providers (PCPs) for the third straight year. And, while PCP referrals stayed the top source for finding specialists, they are losing ground to self-research; this year, 40% found a specialist via a referral and 31% via self-research, versus a 45% / 25% split in 2018. 

Unsurprisingly, much of this research is happening online with more than half of respondents consulting the internet. While search engines (e.g., Google) are the most common resource, health system websites rose to number two in 2019 with 43% of online researchers visiting them versus 38% in 2018. What information do they seek? The results again show the complex nature of provider selection, as insurance accepted, clinical expertise, communication skills, hospital/health system reputation, appointment availability, cost, and location all had more than 70% of respondents rating them extremely or very important.

Rising website engagement is a good sign for health systems investing in their digital properties, but the survey shows that consumers seek information at various places online – Google, health system websites, insurance websites, and/or other third party sites – so health systems need to enhance their digital presence both on and beyond their websites. As they look to 2020, they will need to ensure that information about their providers and services is both visible and accurate in search results and that, when they succeed in attracting consumers to their websites, they empower them with rich information.

Schedule: Streamlining Appointment Booking Across Key Points of Access 

Looking at three years’ worth of data on appointment booking preferences, a clear trend has emerged: phone remains the top method, but online booking is gaining ground. This year, 55% of respondents preferred phone, down from 62% in 2018, with speed (54%), ease of booking (45%), and personalized service (43%) their key reasons. Meanwhile, online booking rose from 25% of respondents in 2017 to 32% in 2019, with convenience (71%) and speed (62%) the top drivers.

Among those who prefer online booking, it’s not simply a preference; in many cases it’s a deciding factor in provider selection, the absence of which can put patient retention at risk. In fact, among Millennials and Gen Xers who prefer online booking (35% and 40%, respectively), more than half said they’d switch providers for the option.

Each annual survey has shown not only that different consumers like to book appointments in different ways, but also that consumers likely engage with multiple access points even for a single visit. Thus, health systems need to both meet the growing demand for self-service scheduling and ensure that related initiatives are part of a coordinated effort to enhance access across channels to prevent a potentially inconsistent consumer experience that can hinder brand image.

Access: Offering Quicker, More Convenient Care Options 

In addition to convenient scheduling, the 2019 survey also revealed continued significant demand for convenient site of care options – options that meet consumers’ needs not only for conveniently-located care, but also for quick access to it. For example, 44% of respondents said they’d received care at an urgent care clinic in the past 12 months and 39% at a retail clinic. The key reasons respondents said they sought care at these sites included speed of access, convenient hours, and convenient location. 

The introduction of questions about virtual care in the 2019 edition also revealed this to be a significant area of interest for today’s consumers. While 29% said they had actually ever participated in a virtual care visit, one-third of overall respondents said they’d be highly likely to switch providers to gain the option. This percentage jumped to 48% for Millennials and 42% for Gen Xers.

Looking to 2020, health systems will need solid strategies for enabling access beyond traditional walls. Many are making headway, but despite 61% of leaders in a 2019 survey identifying “offering a variety of facility-based access points” as a high priority, only 10% reported having “best in class” offerings currently. It will be important for health systems to couple efforts to expand their offerings with strategies to drive awareness about them. In addition, giving consumers better visibility into appointment availability at traditional sites would also facilitate a win-win, particularly in situations where consumers need quick access and health systems have short-term appointment slots available.

Positioning for Success in 2020

While health systems continue to vie for consumer attention against a growing competitor set – from traditional competitors merging together to brand new entrants popping up – this research provides room for optimism. At a time when choices abound and it’s easier than ever to make a switch, consumers do value hospital/health system brand and affiliation. This gives health systems an inherent and potentially significant advantage, but it will be on them to make their organizations the “easy choice” by meeting consumer demand for convenience along all points of their access journeys.

Emma Smith is Vice President of Marketing at Kyruus, an industry leader in enterprise provider search, scheduling, and data management solutions for health systems. Kyruus is helping more than 50 leading health systems across the United States transform how patients access care. 

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