May 29, 2020                         By  Henri Cattier and Kim Williams

Accelerating Patient Choice

While there’s consensus that COVID-19 has changed the business of healthcare forever, it’s important not to discount trends that were already influencing investments and shaping the future of healthcare. It may take time for some of these trends to get back on track, especially if the broader macro-economic indicators of employment participation and consumer confidence stay mired at depressed levels for a prolonged period. Trends associated with patient experience will likely accelerate quickly given the enormous shift to consumer and patient priorities and demands that have become paramount in this COVID-19 saga.

Even before COVID-19, many Americans were being stressed financially as healthcare costs outpaced wages.  Now, many more American households are wrestling with an array of financial burdens, beyond just healthcare, that few have ever experienced before; from unprecedented unemployment reports amid financial market volatility to business closures and strained household budgets.

Considering all these factors, the answers to key questions  will have a ubiquitous impact on the industry. Will this public health and economic crisis be a massive accelerant to consumers to become smarter and more opinionated about their healthcare consumption? Will they become educated healthcare shoppers?, Will the irrefutable evidence that consumers who better managed their health risks fared much better in a pandemic than those with chronic treatable conditions trigger the adoption of healthier lifestyles? Is the time right for broader adoption and use of care navigation and symptom tracking applications and services including Rightway Health, Symple and Castlight?

As consumers have gained a greater awareness of how insidious and transmissible the COVID-19 virus is through surface area contact, it seems inevitable that consumer preference for where and how they seek care will change. Experts expect a sustained higher proportion of visits being delivered virtually and higher utilization of alternative care sites, including ambulatory surgical clinics. As noted in an article in the Journal of Medical Economics, it is estimated that there are 883.7 million ambulatory care visits per year in the U.S., with 54.5 percent of these visits going to primary care physicians. With an average wait time of 18 minutes and 13 seconds from arrival until a patient is seen by the provider, there is a surplus of time for the mingling of patients who have an acute infectious disease with those who do not. It appears likely that consumers and providers alike are going to embrace alternate care delivery types for routine visits, including telemedicine and a streamlined intake where patients can sit patiently in their cars before walking right into an exam room.  The airlines have allowed seat assignments and automated check-in for flights for more than a decade. It certainly appears that technology innovation may finally disrupt the front desk experience at the physician’s office.

Our team at Commonwealth Health Advisors continues to analyze the lasting change that COVID-19 will bring to the U.S. healthcare industry. Our perspective is informed by our collective years leading healthcare businesses and working side-by-side with our clients. As a Boston-based healthcare management consulting firm, we are privileged to work with many established healthcare technology and services businesses, new entrants and disruptors, and financial and strategic investors. In Part 5 of our series on How COVID-19 Will Change the Healthcare Landscape, we take a deeper look at how consumer’s demand and delivery preferences for healthcare services will be changed by the current COVID-19 pandemic. How do consumers make sense of this new landscape? What are the priority questions senior executives should be addressing to best position their organizations to win in the post-COVID-19  healthcare consumer market?

Pre-visit and in-clinic workflows must change

Consumers will be less comfortable in settings with people who are sick (e.g., doctors’ offices, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities). What demand changes will this cause? How will they choose to interact with their physicians and other care providers? How rapidly will consumers become more comfortable with virtual visits?

Surgical procedures and care settings expand to meet ambulatory demand

The “demanding consumer” in healthcare… just got more demanding. Will patients prefer to get elective surgeries outside of the hospital, viewing it as safer? How will the ambulatory surgical market respond to increased demand? When will elective surgeries be back at the same level of demand? What kind of success measures will consumers now require as it relates to healthcare facility safety? Will virtual care options drive consumer choice for providers?

Care navigation and mobile health adoption accelerates

Personal healthcare apps will gain consumer attention and favor as consumers will be more open than ever to the idea of healthcare data sharing…regulatory pressure on data sharing will be higher than ever. Who will be the likely go-to winners capturing this market?  Providers? Payers? Apple? Google? How will a winning app change patient choice? What are the most important components to an app that wins? Will patients opt-in to data tracking (e.g., COVID-19 apps from Apple and Google) for contact tracing? Will patients continue to demand privacy safeguards or allow their data to be used? How much will they demand choice over government mandates and regulations?