Healthcare Innovation: I Want To Buy A Vowel

The valet took my car.  The Walmart greeter, turned his head sideways kike a swimmer and welcomed me. I asked him if the hospital was running any sales today on procedures or illnesses.  That always confuses them.  Then  I sashayed over to the coffee emporium.  

After taking out a small loan to pay the barista, I sat in the most ornate hospital lobby I had ever seen.  There was a large atrium in the middle of the lobby extending to the twelfth floor.  I squinted to see if there were frescos painted on the ceiling.  A man wearing a black three-piece suit was playing music-to make-you-forget-you-were-sick on a grand piano–I’m not kidding.  The only missing embellishments were free pony rides and a killer whale leaping in a water park.

It was like being at the Ritz.  Healthcare consumerism personified; valet parking, a greeter, a great lounge, and gourmet coffee.  Your innovation dollars at work.

Consumerism is not a cultural revolution underway involving a sudden new enthusiasm for taking care of customers.  In fact it lacks both the revolution and the enthusiasm.

The biggest problem in innovating consumerism is that institutions are looking for easy solutions, and they have developed plans and approved budgets to ensure they get easy solutions–check the box and move on to the next big problem whose leaders are seeking an easy solution.  No one likes to work harder than he or she needs to.

Many healthcare executives are betting that if they wait long enough, consumerism will simply fix itself.  Waiting is  essentially long slow periods of nothing much interspersed with ocassional bursts of something.  Bursts of something never fixed anything.

The first something they will do is call a meeting. They’ll give the meeting a fancy name, and email everyone a detailed agenda.  Someone will bring a PowerPoint presentation and distribute printed copies of the deck.  And after everyone grabs a cup of coffee or a lotus flower tea, they’ll vote on whether to fund a consumerism initiative. They’ll make speeches for and against.  The behavioral psychology subcommittee will analyze who voted for what. By which time it won’t matter anymore.

“Do you have everything you need to improve consumerism?”  The CIO asked his committee; out-of-date people doing out-of-date things.  Apparently he was concerned the committee had exceeded its brief by thinking on its own.  The CIO ignored the fact that his question was way too existential and his powers of motivation had been diminished since waterboarding was out of fashion at the moment.  Fortunately for him, ignorance about how to solve the consumerism problem was not yet considered a capital crime.

Taking a short cut to solve consumerism is right up there as one of the worst ideas of all time.  Consumerism just hasn’t risen to its proper level of importance to earn the attention it requires. It’s almost as though payers and providers decided to hand the problem over to a couple of skinny-pants-wearing interns, with IQs in the shallow end of the gene pool, and told them to write a white paper on consumerism and publish it through an organic bookstore. 

Solving consumerism deserves your best effort.  Unless you don’t mind being negligent.  Negligent about accountable care, population health, and Star ratings.  Negligent about access and engagement, and negligent about your approach to patient acquisition and retention.  Otherwise, you can continue to check the box, build a new atrium for your hospital, and change the color scheme of your website.

None of your patients are turning cartwheels about how effective your consumerism strategy is. Au contrare.  Patients who’ve had bad customer experiences are likely to fold up their tents and go somewhere else.  

But, what would happen if your consumerism strategy took into account that the value of each new patient was $200,000 and the value of each retained patient was $100,000?

Customer experience is not a Zen thing.  Bad customer experience is like chaos theory. A butterfly flaps its wings in Omaha, and two hundred patients in New York can’t schedule their appointments.  On the other hand, good customer experience should have everything the customer needs, and nothing he or she doesn’t.  Need an example?  The link to your gift shop on the homepage of your website.

Thanks for playing.

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