I was pleased to see one of the conclusions drawn by Deloitte, based on its 2016 survey of consumer health care priorities. In their report, they made the spot-on observation that “scaling technology and designing digital for health consumers must be more than a digitization of current state processes.”

Defining what consumers want from their health care experience isn’t all that complicated. They want access to affordable health care, and they want a personalized experience. Can I get the health care I need when I need it? How much will it cost me? Do they know me and understand what I need?

Delivering on it is another matter. We know that smartphones, social media and online retailers are shaping consumer expectations when it comes to their health experience. So what implications does that have for health care providers? More specifically, how should consumer preferences impact how providers are showing up online, and the digital experience consumers are having with them?

Having spent the first 15 years of my career working for hospitals and health systems, I have some of my own ideas. But I wanted to shape my thinking through the lens of a digital expert. So, I asked my colleague, Sean O’Brien, VP of Technology and Innovation, if he’d spend a few minutes sharing his insights on how providers should be thinking about and using digital assets to enhance the consumer experience and build their brands.

Q1. Where would you say health care providers are -overall- on the digital maturity scale? Why do you think that is? Like any big industry, there are innovators and slow-movers. In health care, I see mostly a pretty basic approach which would put hospitals on the far left of our digital maturity model. I would describe it as a one-size fits all approach that leans heavily on the user to make decisions rather than guide or help the user and improve their experience. This runs counter to the industry, which is driving toward personalization. While I understand that health care is a complex industry, with lots of competing priorities, if customer experience is a priority – which it is for most – the digital component of that cannot be skipped.

Maturity-Digital Model

Q2. How should health care providers think about their website, from a strategic perspective? Ultimately, you should think about it as a core part of your service offering – part of your care experience. Don’t focus on why users would come to your site. You need to have a point of view or purpose for each component of your digital footprint and each phase of a user’s journey. This will lead to different questions, like asking how your digital platform can reduce fear and anxiety for your patients. Put another way, how can you personalize the experience to help individuals rather than visitors? Develop a point of view, test some changes, and measure the outcomes.

Q3. What models or best practices can health care adopt from other industries to improve their digital experience with consumers? The evolution of the digital experience should be approached incrementally. It doesn’t have to feel like boiling the ocean. If you look at some of the things that the hospitality industry is doing – like Disney for example – you see that it’s all about flexibility and empowerment. Two things that I’d argue are important trends for health care providers as well. Don’t just think of your digital presence as outbound communication when from a patient’s perspective it’s an important part of their experience, and often their first impression.

Q4. What are the top three things you recommend healthcare providers do in 2017 to improve the digital experience for their customers? I think about it in terms of investment. Health care providers should make sure they truly understand their consumers’ expectations. Have you conducted any research to gain insight into how your site is being used and what your consumers want it to provide? Do you understand what was once differentiating is now table stakes and that there are emerging ways of differentiating yourself digitally? Do you know what needs your digital channels can address, from the patient’s perspective? Once you recognize that your .com is part of the patient experience, review your level of investment and adjust it accordingly.

Q5. What’s the payoff is they do these things? What’s the risk if they don’t? The risk is not understanding shifts in consumer expectations, and subsequently missing the mark in terms of a complete patient experience, ultimately showing up as a commodity rather than a brand. The payoff is that you are building trust and engagement with consumers. You are getting a part of the brand experience “right” that many other providers are not. You are differentiating yourself in a way that will set you apart from your competitors. You are fixing one of the long-missed opportunities to make the health care experience less frustrating and more empowering.

Without a doubt, digital is part of the patient experience. And how your hospital or health system “shows up” online will have a critical impact on consumer engagement and advocacy. While an ongoing investment is required to create and sustain an on-brand digital experience, it is likely the least expensive and most visible of all your health system’s (information technology) investments….and probably the most measurable!