Gauging Patients’ Healthcare Needs During a Crisis: Lessons from Successful Consumer Brands

By Suzanne Cogan, Chief Commercial Officer, SPH Analytics
Twitter: @SPHAnalytics

What are patients’ most pressing healthcare needs during a crisis? If you ask healthcare plans and physicians, they’ll likely say “communication” and “care.”

The current pandemic and spread of COVID-19 is unlike any other crisis we’ve seen in our lifetime. But one thing is certain: People need to feel like their physicians and healthcare network are keeping them informed and healthy.

Yet as recently as mid-May, months after COVID-19 pandemic kicked into full gear in the United States, many consumers are still ill-informed and confused. According to preliminary results of an SPH Analytics online consumer survey conducted May 4-11, only 37% said their health plan had reached out to them with information regarding COVID-19. While most providers and health plans are working hard to develop new workflows and gaining a better understanding of the implications of COVID, a stronger approach to messaging and communication is needed.

Looking ahead, there are many ways the industry can improve by asking an important question: What can healthcare organizations, like payers and providers, do to re-establish trust during the time of crisis? One answer: Look at what some of the biggest consumer brands are doing — and follow their lead.

Establishing Trust
While there are differences between healthcare organizations like Kaiser and consumer-oriented brands like Nike, the rules for establishing — and maintaining — trust are universal.

In a crisis such as the current pandemic, actions speak volumes. Take Starbucks, one of the major international chains that committed to paying employees for more than a month, while closing retail locations. Though many brick-and-mortar locations are closed, Starbucks continues to post updates to its website, and its foundation has donated $1 million to Feeding America. These are the kinds of efforts necessary to sustain positive sentiment.

Other companies, like makeup giant L’Oreal, have repurposed part of their businesses to accommodate the post-COVID-world needs: After the consumer brand announced on March 20 it would start making hand sanitizer, which has been increasingly scarce during the coronavirus pandemic, its positive media coverage skyrocketed.

Some might argue that most businesses don’t have the capital to donate millions of dollars to charity or repurpose operations. But most organizations can make small shifts by focusing their messaging on the broader world’s needs: consumer wellness, mental health and physical safety.

The same principles apply to health plans: When consumers were confused and anxious during the early weeks of coronavirus spreading in the United States, the health plans that stood out were proactive in their messaging. They reached out to consumers directly, filling their home pages with customized COVID-19 content, and activating pop-up windows for Q&A chats to help members comprehend rules for social distancing and keep up with face mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Applying Lessons Learned
How can the healthcare industry — especially small practices and health plans — apply some of these lessons from consumer brands to their own functions?

By following these time-tested approaches to messaging during a crisis, stakeholders can help foster greater trust in the health systems and reassure patients during difficult times:

  1. Set the right tone. The words you choose, rather than the actual content of your message, can determine the power of your influence. In other words, how you say something can make the biggest difference in outcomes. Business leaders who are calm and professional, rather than panicked, are seen as more trustworthy and reliable. This has been acknowledged for decades in consumer advertising.
  2. Tap into essential needs. Think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. Before consumers can strive for self-actualization, they need to know that their primary and secondary needs are met – food, shelter, safety, love and a sense of belonging. An organization’s ability to reinforce those middle tiers can positively influence consumer trust.
  3. Embrace vulnerability. There’s a lot we don’t know right now – and a lot we can’t do right now — and it’s okay to admit it. For example: Governor Andrew Cuomo is open about his lack of medical expertise and ability to predict the future. Most of his constituents appreciate it, and his favorability ratings have inclined significantly over the last two months. Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., NIAID director, is also lauded for his frank, forthcoming comments about what he does and doesn’t know, and as a result has earned the trust of many Americans. Health and supply companies that admitted that they don’t know how the pandemic will impact shipping in their supply chains have braced customers for delays. Had they promised something and not delivered, consumer perception would have soured.
  4. Seek feedback. We need to look for new opportunities to connect with each other safely. Rather than guessing what consumers want, providers and health plans can gauge their needs through market research and polls, and then refine processes and systems to improve their experience. Healthcare surveys are tools that can generate insight into how patients are faring and where gaps in care and communication may exist. And leveraging surveys in a regular cadence during an extended period of crisis enables organizations to keep their finger on the pulse of consumer sentiment and tweak their responses accordingly.
  5. Engage and connect. Leveraging technology such as predictive analytics-based, smart engagement tools can help healthcare stakeholders fine tune their communications and outreach based on factors such as age, social determinants of health [SDOH] or health history. By meeting patients where they’re at —and engaging with them in the most effective way — healthcare organizations can positively impact care, interventions and outcomes.

As the current crisis continues, there’s still lot of confusion about how to help. Healthcare organizations don’t have all the answers. But, by looking to what some of the best and most trusted consumer brands are doing right, we can improve our response—and most important, our members’ experience and patients’ life quality. While the short-term economics aren’t obvious, putting consumers’ wellbeing and needs first will help many businesses win the long game.