Are healthcare consumers patients or customers?

In my tenure as a marketer, providers have debated whether healthcare consumers are patients or customers. Many doctors, board members and even executives will flinch at the term “customer” – especially those that perceive healthcare as more altruistic compared to commercial business – and never refer to patients as such.

Here’s the reality.

  • Healthcare consumers are customers first and patients occasionally. We consume healthcare services and goods for a number of reasons – from staying fit to preventing illness to recovering from an injury. We may be patients when being treated in a clinical environment but that’s relatively infrequent across most of our lives. Today’s consumer expects to be treated like a customer even when sick.
  • Healthcare is a business. Even if an organization is a non-profit, it still needs to generate cash flow to sustain its mission; and businesses generate cash flow by exchanging goods and services with customers.
  • Customers make choices to purchase or use services from companies. Healthcare consumers are exerting greater influence than ever before in the selection, purchase and use of healthcare providers. With the advent of healthcare reform, expanded insured populations now have more choices. High deductible health plans are making consumers more sensitive to the price of healthcare services.  And the internet gives them instant access to information about treatment options and providers.
  • Savvy consumers are attracting big brands. We have seen the recent entry of retailers into the healthcare market because there is significant unmet need, and an untapped consumer base which is ripe for revenue generation.
  • Retailers understand how to cultivate customers. Retailers know how to engage, retain and generate sales from customers and how to rapidly develop and deploy new products and services to support customer needs. Traditional healthcare delivery systems are not driven from the customer mindset.
  • Healthcare revenue is at risk. Why? When healthcare providers do not view patients as customers, they risk losing them. The delivery of patient care has historically been seen as episodic, so our systems are set-up to deal in transactions instead of maximizing lifetime customer value. Other industries use very effective on-going customer engagement methods to optimize revenue through retention.

By channeling the voice of the customer, we can convey how consumers engage with healthcare services, what the delivery of a branded service experience should look like, where there are opportunities to generate new revenue, and how customer satisfaction is created.

The reality is patients are customers. The sooner we embrace this concept the more successful we’ll be.