a creative agency that takes care of healthcare brands
Dr Candice O’Sullivan
07 Jun, 2021

Consulting firms the world over have conducted countless surveys and market pulse checks over the last 12 months to document the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on consumer sentiment and patient behaviour. Here, I explore some of the trends that have emerged from this data and the implications and opportunities for marketing healthcare services.

1. Blossoming remote technology

New consumer sentiment: “Digital consultation can offer me a high-quality clinical interaction.”

With the Government’s commitment to make MBS-subsidised telehealth permanent, virtual care is here to stay. When access to telehealth was broadened in early 2020 to better meet healthcare needs during the pandemic, uptake was rapid. Patients were quick to understand that telehealth doesn’t suit all types of health appointments but, where appropriate, can work just as well – and sometimes even better.

The non-health benefits of telehealth – in particular, the flexibility, convenience and ancillary cost savings – have also helped to win patients over. In a 2020 Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Patient Sentiment Survey, 39% of respondents stated ‘more convenient’ as the primary reason they would continue to use telehealth following the COVID-19 outbreak. A further 20% stated ‘ease of use’ as their main factor.

The fact is virtual appointments eliminate many of the practical hassles of seeing a healthcare professional face-to-face. Not having to find or pay for parking, catch crowded public transport or get a lift from a busy family member, makes medical visits easier and cheaper. Time savings associated with not having to sit idle in a waiting room means less time out of the workday and more opportunity to be productive right up until the minute of the appointment.

Here in Australia, younger generations have the most positive perceptions of telehealth according to a CommBank GP Insights Report conducted in October 2020. More than one third of Gen Z and Y respondents said telehealth would enable them to visit their GP more, while 41% of Gen Y and 35% of Gen X respondents said they would prefer telehealth versus face-to-face appointments post-pandemic. But regardless of age, the survey showed that Australians see telehealth as a new way to support faster, more frequent access to care.

Overall, the pandemic has fast-tracked the acceptance of virtual care and this may impact how consumers choose healthcare providers going forward. In the BCG Patient Sentiment Survey, 53% of patients indicated that the availability of remote care options would represent a more important factor when it comes to selecting a healthcare provider in the future.

With subsidised telehealth here to stay in one form or another, virtual appointments will be increasingly expected by patients, regardless of whether they reside in an urban or rural area. Therefore, healthcare providers need to be prepared in terms of supporting models of care and digital solutions. The latter is particularly important as the Government has announced its intention to preference video consultations over phone consultations when allocating MBS funds. Given that the vast majority (more than 90%) of MBS-funded telehealth appointments are currently performed via phone, providers may need to consider how to integrate video consultations into day-to-day practice while still supporting patients who can’t readily access this kind of technology.

2. COVID as a catalyst for overcoming digital inertia

New consumer sentiment: “If I can do it online, I will.”

In 2020, one million extra households shopped online every month, with digital purchases growing by 57% year-on-year. But the Internet didn’t just serve as a shopfront during the pandemic. As lengthy lockdowns persisted, it became a tool to manage and get on with life. From Zoom Pilates to YouTube baking classes, many people embraced the online environment as a way to continue participating in social, leisure and learning activities.

In parallel, digital communications (SMS, email, digital signatures/form-filling, e-commerce, WhatsApp, Messenger) soared to accommodate the plethora of administrative tasks normally taken care of at the point of service delivery. The inertia previously associated with getting to know and understand newer digital platforms was drastically lowered as people were forced to interact with technology. And now with the learning curve behind us and new habits formed, many consumers are unlikely to go back.

This means that the imperative to engage consumers online is greater than ever, whether your target audience is 18 or 80 years old. Investments in paid search campaigns, website performance, video, podcasts and other online health tools are well justified, as more and more people routinely use the web to service their needs and wants.

But being seen as a competent operator in the digital space is about more than just your online presence. Perhaps just as important is leveraging the digital environment to deliver a more efficient and streamlined patient experience, both at the point of care and before/after a consultation. This might include the use of online bookings, SMS appointment confirmations and reminders, digital form-filling prior to appointments (patient information, questionnaires/validated inventories, consent), virtual check-in, e-scripts, electronic invoices/receipts, emailing of patient materials/resources to consolidate information shared during a visit, etc. Often new sources of efficiency are tied to replacing old paper-based methods. By tracking the patient journey from start to finish and following the paper trail along the way, you will quickly identify logical points at which digital solutions could be introduced.

For those healthcare providers that rely heavily on specific technology or scientific/medical techniques to attract patients and set themselves apart from others in their field (e.g. IVF, laser eye surgery, da Vinci robotic surgery), it’s important to recognise that perceived digital competence can influence overall brand perceptions. Demonstrating digital prowess across all aspects of your practice builds consumer confidence in your technical know-how and skills. If you want patients to believe that you are technologically savvy, have your finger on the pulse and sit at the frontier of new advances in care, a modern, efficient and up-to-date practice will send the right signals.

3. Playing catch-up with our health

New consumer sentiment: “It’s time to get this seen to, if it’s safe for me to do so.”

Lockdowns, particularly in Victoria, meant people put off many of their routine health appointments or didn’t get new problems seen to in 2020. Consequently, Australians of all ages and stages of life are playing catch-up with their health in 2021. Now is the time to be visible while people are actively seeking healthcare providers to address their health needs. If you’re located in a regional or rural town (or anywhere in sunny Queensland!), you potentially have a whole new cohort of patients, given the many city folk that decided to make a tree- or sea-change during the pandemic.

As people search for the help they need, invest in making your brand stand out – put your brand front and centre wherever your target audience is spending time. This might mean making more use of online advertising (e.g. paid campaigns on social, on-demand TV and other streaming services like Spotify and podcasts) and/or having a greater presence in your local community via letterbox drops, OOH advertising along popular bus routes or in local shopping centres, or local newspaper advertising. In general, whatever channels you choose (and there should always be a mix), maintaining a moderate but consistent presence in the market over a longer time period is better than paying for a large, short burst of activity – unless you are launching something new and need to quickly build awareness.

4. Infection control is the new king

New consumer sentiment: “Providers must earn my confidence.”

The concept of infection control is now universally understood, and related practices and precautions have high patient acceptability. People expect healthcare providers to adhere more than others – you are the benchmark for the rest of society. This is the last place they want to see complacency. Thus, companies now need to consider the ‘cost of confidence’, i.e. what materials and activities they need to invest in to reassure patients that their clinic or practice environment is a safe place to be.

In this regard, studies (including those from the retail sector) show that simple measures are effective. For example, people are reassured when they can see cleaners or other staff members visibly sanitising high-touch surfaces. Communicating to patients the systems and processes that have been put in place to keep staff and patients safe is also critically important – patients need to see that you are committed to their safety, as well as understand what to expect when they visit. A ‘peace of mind’ program can help your practice articulate and ‘package’ its approach to care during COVID, helping to put patients’ minds at ease.

5. Hybrid events

New consumer sentiment: “I really miss meeting up, but interstate travel is still too risky.”

After a year of virtual conferences and webinars, we’re seeing a shift to blended events in 2021, with larger virtual audiences and smaller face-to-face hubs in one large city. Healthcare professionals are keen to get out and network with peers and colleagues again. However, with the threat of sudden lockdowns, many are simply not ready to risk interstate travel just yet, particularly if they are not yet fully vaccinated.

This is a great time to run more intimate events that give attendees the opportunity to interact with subject matter experts in highly valued ways. As webinar fatigue sets in, also think about new and engaging ways that people can gather safely to learn and network with each other. Consider how you can use the outdoors to revamp your get-togethers in well-ventilated spaces where aerosol droplets are less of an issue (e.g. walking/running groups for learning on the run, twilight lawn cinemas to watch webinars, garden parties for didactic presentations or more interactive tutorials).

The same can be said for patient information sessions and events. Some will be ready to attend socially distanced events in person, particularly if it means they can meet clinicians or go on a site tour. Others may continue to appreciate the safety, flexibility and convenience of virtual events.

6. Renewed emphasis on health and well-being

New consumer sentiment: “It’s time to reinvent myself. How can I be the best me?”

From positivity cults to all-pervasive anxiety, consumers’ minds are in a different and varied place since COVID. Many individuals remain highly anxious. More than ever, patients need healthcare providers to show empathy, empower their decision-making and help them make good choices while their mental health is fragile.

The so-called ‘butterfly effect’ has also seen many people put unnecessary pressure on themselves during lockdown. As isolation persisted, a trend quickly grew around the desire to emerge from one’s iso-cocoon as a happier, better version of oneself. Depending on personal interests and priorities, people engaged in a range of (typically online) activities that they thought would support their metamorphosis. On the flipside, people also had a lot of time to just be ‘still’, to take stock and to reassess their life. This has led to a renewed emphasis on the importance of a more holistic, sustainable way of life where health and well-being is a priority.

The pandemic has also highlighted the role that health professionals play in prescribing and supporting healthy change, with healthcare providers now clearly wearing the ‘everyday hero’ brand archetype. While this mindset prevails, providers would do well to view the patient journey through a whole-of-life lens and consider how they can better support wellness and health-seeking behaviour outside the finite setting of the consultation room. For example, what can you do before and after a patient’s appointment, or while they sit in your waiting room, to support health literacy, enable a moment of mindfulness or create a greater sense of well-being?

7. A world of issues

New consumer sentiment: “I will be more mindful when choosing a provider to ensure they represent the things I care about.”

Besides COVID, there is a plethora of other hugely important challenges going on in our world right now that businesses need to be sensitive of. Society is calling for greater awareness and meaningful change around issues like diversity and inclusion, the environment and climate change, and taking care of local communities and businesses hit hard by the pandemic. You would be doing your company a disservice if you did not take this opportunity to turn a window on yourself and ensure you are reflecting the right values and behaviours – inside and out.

So, where to now?

Extraordinary times have changed what’s ordinary. Don’t underestimate what people have been through (particularly in Victoria – which is now up to lockdown 4.0!) and their reluctance to simply return to ‘things as before’. If you’ve been wanting to try something, now is the time to test it out and help define the ‘new normal’. Current modelling sees all this playing out until 2023, so don’t wait until the pandemic is over to change and adapt. To get started, consider bringing together an innovation sub-committee to serve as a think tank for new ideas and inspiration. With or without COVID, the same timeless promises you make to your patients should still hold true and serve as your litmus test for any new initiative:

“We will keep you safe. We will partner with you. We will make it easier. We will care for you as a person.”

– Adrienne Boissy, MD, MA | Chief Experience Officer, Cleveland Clinic Health System

Dr Candice O’Sullivan, Director of Strategy & Planning at Wellmark. You can follow Wellmark on Facebook @wellmarkcreative, Twitter @wellmark_health or Insta @wellmarkcreative.