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Study Examines Changes In Healthcare Consumerism
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NRC Health, the leading provider of in-depth customer intelligence in healthcare, recently released its 2021 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report. For its third-annual industry review, NRC Health surveyed millions of healthcare consumers against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. From declining brand loyalty, increased care deferment, the fast adoption of telehealth, a rise in wearable tech and a broader focus on social media marketing, NRC Health’s latest report shines a light on consumers’ evolving preferences and behaviors related to key healthcare trends and offers insight into how provider organizations can recapture patient volumes in 2021.

“It cannot be overstated just how dramatically COVID-19 has accelerated the trajectory of consumerism in healthcare,” said Helen Hrdy, Chief Growth Officer, NRC Health. “The onus falls on healthcare leaders to move the industry forward by ensuring patient safety, building consumer trust and bringing more human understanding into every care experience. Those organizations that are willing and able to evolve with the times will be best-positioned for success in the aftermath of COVID-19.”


Consumers Favor Convenience Over Brand Loyalty

Consumer loyalty is a major driver of health system profitability, but unfortunately for hospitals and health systems, overall brand preference among healthcare consumers continues to decline, from 31 percent in 2018 to 36 percent in 2020. More than a third of consumers expressed no particular preference for a healthcare brand, when compared against independent practitioners, and 62 percent anticipate their brand preferences to change after the pandemic.

Ironically, providers themselves are in the best position to earn back consumer trust. An analysis from NRC Health’s Real-time Feedback database shows that consumers report an overwhelming fondness for their providers, especially since the outbreak began. To capitalize on that goodwill and bring patients back into the healthcare fold, all evidence points to convenience. Almost half of consumers say a convenient location is the number one factor in their healthcare decision-making.


Patient Deferment Rates Will Continue To Rise

Prior to the pandemic, healthcare deferral rates were approaching a five-year low. But with consumer anxiety at an all-time high due to the pandemic, those rates rose significantly in 2020, up from 22.4 percent at the end of March to 30.4 percent by the end of June. Forty percent of patients who delayed care in 2020 cited the coronavirus as the reason, while 17.2 percent said they prefer to manage their care on their own for now.

Delaying care can have a number of repercussions, from threatening hospital revenue streams in the near term to causing far more serious outcomes for consumers in the long term. Patients 75 and older accounted for nearly 68 percent of all care delays, revealing a huge challenge for health systems as they try to recruit this generation back into regular care.


Future Of Care Delivery Looks Uncertain

Lagging in widespread adoption for years, the pandemic fast tracked virtual care delivery from optional luxury to operational necessity. Fortunately, consumers have been receptive to the shift, with an overwhelming 92 percent reporting positive telehealth experiences during this time. However, only 27 percent of consumers say they will consider telehealth as a potential alternative for future visits, underscoring what is still an uncertain future for virtual health and overall care delivery beyond the pandemic. Prioritizing provider time and attentiveness, as well as financial transparency, will be key as healthcare organizations work to cultivate effective telehealth practices long term.


Disconnected Over Digital Innovations

Telehealth may have brought healthcare into consumers’ homes, but it is by no means the only avenue to reach customers outside of the healthcare facility. By and large, consumers are enthusiastic about digital innovations that bring them closer to their provider — even as these innovations are underutilized by healthcare organizations.

Wearable tech, for example, has become a huge part of the average consumer’s daily life in regards to how they manage their health and wellness from home. Yet only 50 percent of providers are asking about wearable tech data during appointments, despite the fact that 57 percent of consumers believe this data would be useful in conversations with their healthcare providers.

Social media is another under-used digital venue for patient interaction. Even though 72 percent of Americans have some kind of social media profile, many health systems have not yet found an optimal strategy for engagement. And while currently, only 23 percent of Internet users are actively seeking health information on social media, that number is likely to soon rise as 70 percent of consumers expressed interest in getting healthcare information via social channels. Another 62 percent said they trust the health information they get on social media, so long as it comes directly from their provider. This was especially true during the worst of the pandemic, when consumers trusted news from local healthcare organizations more than any other sources.

“For years, consumers have made consistent appeals for autonomy, convenience, and freedom of choice,” said Hrdy. “As unsettling as it’s been, COVID-19 has brought some of these consumerist-driven measures to the forefront. While healthcare leaders have proven they can be nimble and adaptable, even in the face of crisis, consumers want a partnership with their providers, and a care experience that exceeds their expectations moving forward. But only with the right data, and the right understanding, can we ensure that healthcare is capable of adapting.”

The NRC Healthcare Consumer Trends Report is based on the single largest database of healthcare consumers, with more than two million consumer voices from 300,000 American households sourced from more than 580 healthcare organizations across all 50 states.

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