Three Ways Design Can Help Healthcare Organizations Embrace Consumerism

As consumerism takes an even stronger hold of the healthcare industry, it’s important to fully understand its causes and effects, and leverage design to forge deep bonds with patient populations.

Often, when discussions about healthcare consumerism unfold, they focus on retailers entering the healthcare market: a Walmart and Humana merger will lead to more in-store clinics, a CVS and Aetna deal will strengthen CVS’s MinuteClinic model, and of course there’s Amazon, which recently acquired online pharmacy PillPack and named Dr. Atul Gawande CEO of its newly formed healthcare company.

But these deals do not define healthcare consumerism. They’re a result of it.

Consumerism is a strategy developed in response to changing human behavior. Overall, consumers, especially younger generations, are unhappy with the current healthcare model. They want transparency, value, technology, convenience, and memorable experiences—the same stuff they receive when they interact with other business-to-consumer companies. They also want to partner with companies genuinely committed to protecting their rights and interests. In the context of healthcare, this means they want their providers to be less focused on transactions and more focused on creating deeply personal connections.

When I talk to healthcare leaders in Dallas and across the country, our discussions focus heavily on the need to become more consumer-centric. Excellent service and medical care will always be the pillars of the healthcare industry, but design is playing an increasing role in forging long-lasting relationships with patient populations. Following are three design strategies that can help healthcare organizations enhance consumer centricity and drive profits.

  • Retail Health: The concept of retail health is not about infusing healthcare with retail offerings, but instead looking to the retail industry to help craft better consumer experiences. For example, most retail settings are designed to encourage people to stay and linger, whereas most healthcare spaces are designed to rush patients in and out. To strengthen patient engagement, we will often introduce “speed bumps” in healthcare environments that encourage people to pause and interact with the system outside of the exam room. Some examples include interactive displays, coffee shops, common tables, lounge-like seating, self-guided care stations, or areas where patients can get advice on health, exercise, and nutrition. Surrounding clinical areas with these extra features and spaces can go a long way in making healthcare buildings destinations rather than places for episodic care
  • Harness Emotional Branding: One idea beginning to gain traction in healthcare is emotional branding, which is the notion that successful brands are more about feelings than transactions. From the consumer’s perspective, emotional branding helps make healthcare seem less like an industry and more like a lifestyle. Kaiser Permanente’s “Thrive” campaign is a wonderful example. Through the campaign, the organization tells stories of individuals and families that are taking control of their health and living healthier, more fulfilling lives. And best yet, this philosophy transcends advertising and is seen and felt in the design of many of Kaiser Permanente’s physical environments. Expansive graphics often boldly spell out the “Thrive” mantra, Thrive Bars (inspired by Apple’s Genius Bar) provide health and nutrition support, classroom spaces help build engaged communities, and outdoor areas are intentionally designed to promote activity. Most healthcare organizations are driven by an inspiring brand, but if patients can’t see and feel it when they interact with the healthcare organization, those organizations are missing out on a significant opportunity for differentiation.
  • Design for Flexibility: Consumer preferences are always changing—sometimes gradually and sometimes overnight—and being able to adapt to these changes is critical to stay ahead of the competition. One design strategy that can easily accommodate change is modular design, which employs modular “parts” that can be inserted and reconfigured as needed, like Lego blocks. Other strategies include moveable partitions, minimal built-in casework, and standardized engineering systems that accommodate change without significant reworking. There’s a reason most displays in retail environments are temporary and easily disassembled—preferences and demand change constantly. We need to embrace a similar (though not as rapid) approach to accommodating change in healthcare. Disruption is the new normal, and the organizations that can adapt the quickest will have a significant competitive advantage.

Today’s healthcare consumers are savvier, more engaged and more empowered than ever before, and that’s a good thing. By building deep relationships with patient populations and adapting to their ever-changing needs, healthcare organizations can thrive in this new world of consumerism, strengthening patient-provider relationships, improving outcomes, raising satisfaction levels, and fueling a consistent flow of referrals.

Holly Ragan, based in Dallas, is a member of the executive leadership team at global healthcare design firm CannonDesign.

Posted in Expert Opinions.