The changes last year came fast, and so must the responses. Overnight, virtual health exploded in scale and scope. The technology has existed for years, but the pandemic accelerated adoption by patients, providers and payers simultaneously. However, this shift also shined a light on the digital divide as a barrier to health access. Collective displacement has changed people’s behaviors and expectations dramatically. Accenture ́s COVID-19 Consumer Health Experience Survey 2020 revealed that in the US, 64% of patients are likely—or highly likely—to switch to a new health system if their expectations are not met regarding sanitary and safety protocols, access to up-to-date information and the availability of virtual care options.
The healthcare C-suite must explore new approaches that blend pragmatism with empathy, and ensure they follow through on their intentions to do good for people in an equitable way.
Four ways to adapt to the fast-changing future
As the world continues to change and we learn to be more empathetic and equitable, how can healthcare organizations adapt in 2021 and beyond, taking actions to improve equitable access to healthcare services across digital and physical settings?
1. Know your consumer. The healthcare consumer you knew yesterday has changed. Healthcare brands must ask how people’s behavior has changed—especially when it comes to the places and ways in which they once received care. A mix of traditional and non-traditional settings will come into play to offer healthcare experiences in people’s hands and homes. Humana recently did this, joining forces with startup Dispatch Health to provide members with chronic conditions—such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart failure and many others—access to hospital-level care from the comfort of their homes. Patients can access treatment safely at home and thereby avoid hospital visits.1
Beyond the CEO, every C-level executive and leader inside both front- and back-office functions needs to be invested in shifting their thinking about experience. Payers and providers need to ask if they are giving people options, and if those are the right options. Everyone wants to be patient-centric or member-centric, but is the way in which your organization is structured proving to be a huge barrier when it comes to achieving patient and member centricity goals? The time is now to move beyond the consumer experience to the realization that your business is experience
2. Stay connected. People are feeling disconnected from comfort—and they need it now more than ever. Ever-changing COVID-19 control measures (and consequences for non-compliance) have displaced people’s sense of agency over their own choices, which is one of the feelings associated with healthy mental wellbeing. As a result, we are seeing a spike in the number of people needing mental health services.2
3. Build trust. People are increasingly concerned about the purpose and ethics of the organizations they work for and whose products or services they use. And some simply don’t trust the healthcare system. There is especially a trust gap in underserved populations. Consider the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis—an unjustified study conducted on Black men between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Penicillin became the recommended drug for treatment of syphilis and researchers did not offer it to the subjects.3
Healthcare organizations must work harder to close this trust gap and show that they want to solve empathy and equity challenges. Diverse groups have diverse needs and meeting those needs will require understanding how to get people the care they need, when and how they need it. For instance, some may prefer to receive care outside of a doctor’s office—elsewhere in the community; somewhere that allows people who are scared to feel safer. Payers and providers can also earn trust by being transparent about what data is tracked and how it’s used to improve the patient’s experience or outcomes. It’s harder than ever to build trust when care is delivered across numerous touchpoints. That is why trust should be part of the design of every healthcare service and experience.
4. Be equitable. Are virtual or other services being made available to all? As we make the full move to a digital world, society generally and healthcare organizations specifically must ensure that everyone has access to the same types of treatments. Data shows that preventive screenings have decreased during the pandemic, and that the pandemic crisis has underscored the digital divide as many don’t have access to computers, smartphones or broadband internet, thus limiting their ability to use virtual services. Companies like Centene are helping to expand access to virtual care by providing smartphones and tablets to patients and providers in rural and underserved communities.4
Healthcare organizations need to take an honest look inward at the health disparity data across marginalized populations and ask themselves why that data exists, what their roles have been in that data being true, and how they need to evolve to make health and wellbeing not just “more equitable,” but simply equitable.