Five Consumer Trends to Watch in 2021
From fighting COVID-19 to deploying telehealth platforms rapidly, the last 12 months have certainly presented the healthcare industry and those that work in it with a number of new – and unpredictable – challenges. However, the last 12 months have also been full of learnings and growth, teaching organizations how to drive greater alignment when executing strategic initiatives and engage with consumers in new and innovative ways.
As many of us look ahead to 2021, we wanted to share trends from our fourth annual Patient Access Journey Report, which looks at how consumers make healthcare decisions, and discuss where opportunities exist to build upon this year’s efforts to extend patient access.
Here are five trends we’ve noticed across four years worth of consumer research:
- The internet continues to reign supreme for provider searches
- Trust in health system websites as a key resource continues to rise
- Demand for online scheduling continues to grow
- Virtual care has emerged as an important new factor in provider selection
- Both health systems and consumers have eagerly adopted virtual assistants
Let’s dive in!
1. The internet continues to reign supreme for provider searches
Among those who rely on their own research to find a new provider, the internet remains the top source for gathering information, up from 54% in 2019 and 52% in 2018. And while this isn’t necessarily a surprise, with many things going digital and consumers unable to access more traditional sources of information, like health system staff, it is now even more important for health systems to increase access to provider information online.
In 2021, health systems should continue to look for new ways to drive engagement across the internet. One way they can do so is by increasing access to information about their virtual care offerings in Google – when using the search engine to research care options, ⅕ of survey respondents said they used terms like “virtual care” or “telehealth visit.” Another way is by using analytics to understand how consumers are searching for their providers and services to refine their marketing strategy and stand out online.
2. Trust in health system websites as a key resource continues to rise
In 2017, 38% of consumers said they consulted a health system website in their online search for care. Today, health system websites are the second most consulted resource (45%). In fact, nearly ⅕ of consumers start their search for care on a health system website. This data seems to suggest that the investments many organizations have made to their website in recent years have helped them earn consumers’ trust and position themselves as a go-to resource.
Yet, the bar is rising, especially as consumers grow accustomed to the easy, consumer-friendly experiences they have on sites, like Amazon and OpenTable. As a recent article in Harvard Business Review noted, “to meet these expectations [in a post-pandemic landscape], health systems will need to double down on their ‘digital front door’ efforts, enabling patients to handle routine interactions such as scheduling an appointment, paying a bill, finding a doctor, renewing a medication, finding answers to health questions, and navigating the health system itself.” By streamlining interactions across their website and adapting to consumers’ evolving access needs (e.g., including information and resources about COVID-19), organizations can deepen the trust consumers have in them.
3. Demand for online scheduling continues to grow
Even though 48% of all consumers prefer to schedule their appointments over the phone, in the last year alone, the share of consumers who prefer to book online has risen by 11 points; now 43% cite this method as their booking preference. As seen below, this number is even higher among millennials and Gen Xers, representing a significant opportunity to not only capture consumer demand, but also meet expectations for convenient access experiences among younger consumers with online scheduling.
And though many organizations offer this booking method–or at least to existing patients via their portals–health systems should look for ways to further differentiate their offerings over the next 12 months, whether it’s allowing consumers to self-schedule different types of appointments (e.g., new patient appointment vs. annual physical) or different access options (e.g., virtual care visit, visit at an urgent care or retail clinic).
4. Virtual care has emerged as an important new factor in provider selection
Given the rise in digital technology due to the pandemic, we asked this year’s respondents how virtual care factored into their provider selection process. While consumers continue to prioritize clinically-related and convenience-related factors, over 40% of consumers rank access to virtual visits as very/extremely important and half of millennials and Gen Xers said they’d switch providers to access care this way.
Even though consumers have the option to seek care in-person, at least in some states, they continue to search for information about virtual care. In fact, on our most recent webinar, Damian Rollison, VP of Market Development and Strategic Partnerships at Brandify, shared Google trend data that showed the number of searches for the term “telehealth” have remained consistent over the last six months (late May to mid-November).
In 2021, organizations should identify additional ways to increase (and sustain) access to information about their virtual care offerings in order to help consumers find the right providers. However, because consumer decisions are complex and often vary by generation, to drive meaningful engagement, health systems should make sure that their digital assets address the other top criteria consumers care about, such as availability and location.
5. Both health systems and consumers have eagerly adopted virtual assistants
In this year’s report, we asked respondents who had used a health system website in their provider search if it had a virtual assistant and if yes, whether they found it helpful. 52% said the website they used had a virtual assistant and of those who used it, nearly 3/4 found it helpful for identifying a provider or service, highlighting another opportunity for organizations to differentiate their digital experience and drive engagement online.
Due to the pandemic, many organizations implemented virtual assistants, primarily as a way to screen for COVID-19 and route patients to the right resources. With healthcare leaders thinking about recovery and how to plan for the year ahead, they should consider the ways they can expand this functionality (e.g., enabling consumers to search for and book appointments via chat) and more broadly, how to use technology to expand access to the provider information consumers care about most.
The Year Ahead: Meet Consumers Where They Are
As Omkar Kulkarni, chief innovation officer at Children's Hospital Los Angeles put it in a recent Becker’s article, “2021 will be a year of realignment in digital health. As provider systems adjust to the next normal, they will find that consumer preferences for convenience, experience and cost are even stronger than before the pandemic.” To meet these heightened expectations, organizations will need to listen to what consumers want and design omni-channel patient access strategies to meet consumers where they are with the resources they need.
For a deeper dive into consumer expectations, including how consumers search for, select, and schedule appointments with healthcare providers, download our 2020 Patient Access Journey Report.