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Building an Omnichannel Healthcare Strategy

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever shifted the landscape of healthcare. Advancements in cloud technology, AI, and other innovations were already impacting the healthcare landscape prior to 2020, but the pandemic was the catalyst that moved the industry into Healthcare 3.0.

Avtex has long been committed to providing guidance for healthcare organizations around improving the patient experience. For that reason, we launched two waves of research measuring patient sentiment – the first at the onset of COVID-19, and the second in March 2021.

We set out to determine how patients’ expectations have evolved and what those expectations mean for healthcare providers and payers going forward. The Omnichannel Healthcare Experience Report surveyed 1,025 U.S. citizens and measured preferred settings for care, explored various methods for at-home and virtual care, and examined patients’ greatest pain points.

Among the main takeaways, our research revealed that patients expect frictionless, omnichannel experiences. Meeting patients where they are, across all channels, is crucial to provider and payer success in the new healthcare landscape.

Patient Preferences in 2021 and Beyond

Provider Communication Preferences

An omnichannel approach is essential to delivering successful patient-provider communication. Our research suggests that although human interaction is still the preferred form of patient-provider communication, digital channels must be part of any patient experience strategy.

62% of our respondents preferred to talk to their provider on the phone and 50% preferred to meet with their provider in person, but preferences for digital channels were not far behind. 31% of respondents preferred email, and preferences for mobile apps, patient portals, and online chat saw similar trends.

Healthcare Communication Preferences

Notably, more than a third of Gen Z and Millennials list apps, portals, and chat options in their top three channels.

Healthcare Provider Communication Preferences by Generation

Emerging Channels — Chatbots & AI

Chatbots and other AI tools have potential to add a lot of value in healthcare. Our respondents were most interested in using chatbots to search for a provider. Secondarily, our respondents were interested in leveraging chatbots to check their symptoms.

The patients we surveyed were more or less receptive to chatbots depending on their generation and the function of the bot. Gen Z was the most interested generation, but they preferred to use the bot to understand their healthcare benefits. Millennials, on the other hand, were more interested in the provider search function.

Our assessment is that bots can play a valuable role in patient engagement, but are typically more successful for less complex interactions.

All Channels Must Be Part of the Strategy

The type of interaction carries weight in channel preferences as well. Phone and email are preferred for nearly all provider interactions outside direct care, but there are exceptions: respondents leaned more toward an app/portal for bill-pay and information updates, and they preferred appointment reminders via text. When interactions are straightforward, convenience wins. Complex transactions, on the other hand, require direct interaction with another human.

The variety of communication preferences only makes it more clear that an omnichannel strategy is necessary to reach all segments of patients and members, across the entire customer journey. If your healthcare organization neglects any channel, you risk losing patient connection, which can negatively impact your retention, loyalty, and ultimately, your financial strength.

Meeting Patients and Members Where They Are

The only way to ensure your healthcare organization survives this massive industry shift is to meet patients where they are — that means incorporating all the communication channels they prefer and ensuring their interactions are frictionless.

As illustrated by our research, most providers and payers are currently missing the mark when it comes to developing omnichannel communication strategies and delivering the experiences patients and members want. Opportunity for improvement is everywhere - just look at all the large investments the venture capital and technology communities are making in companies disrupting healthcare.

While most healthcare providers have traditionally focused on connecting with patients via one or two channels, limiting out-of-office care to email and phone, other industries have embraced the importance of other channels and raised consumer expectations.

Chatbots, text messaging, web portals, and many other ‘digital front doors’ have made brand interactions easier and more convenient for consumers, and they expect the same from their healthcare providers.

Making Improvements to the Patient Experience

So how can you make improvements to the patient experience? First, develop a strategy and be prepared to act fast — healthcare is changing quickly - and expectations are rapidly evolving.

If you don’t know whether your organization is prepared to address this experience problem, you’ll need to gather data to assess the current state of patient experience. Patient surveys, reports, STAR ratings, and other quantitative data will help you see the full picture and understand where you’re falling behind.

The next step is to adjust your organization’s collective mindset. A cultural shift may be required – your team needs to understand that this change is necessary and positive. Identify champions to lead the way and ensure the entire organization embraces the shift to an omnichannel patient experience.

Plan your investments, putting more resources toward the initiatives that will have the greatest impact on the experience. When COVID hit, patients were unable or afraid to come in for care, and the effect of the drop in volume on providers’ margins was dramatic. A great place to start is by identifying the barriers to receiving in-person and virtual care.

If you solve for these kinds of revenue-linked issues first, meeting patients and members where they are, this will simultaneously improve your patient experience, improve loyalty, give you a competitive advantage and protect your bottom line.

The COVID-19 pandemic had many effects on our society, chief among them an acceleration of innovation in healthcare. We are now navigating Healthcare 3.0. If you previously measured and invested in patient experience, consider a post-pandemic refresh. If patient experience was not a key metric and focus of your organization, today is the best time to start.

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