The terms “patient engagement” and “consumer engagement” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Hospitals that understand the difference are not only improving patient engagement, they are attracting more patients to serve.

To get the opportunity to serve and engage a patient, first you must engage a consumer. That requires navigating the growing influence of consumerism, and that hasn’t been easy. While 66 percent of hospital and health system executives said consumerism is an above-average priority for 2017, only 16 percent said they have the capability to act on strategies developed from consumer insights, according to a Kaufman Hall report.[i]

“Hospitals need different strategies for consumer and patient engagement,” says Ruth Padilla Portacci, principal of Healthcare Strategy Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in health care organizations. She is also president of the Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD). “Consumers cannot be seen as one homogeneous group. Many consumers may not have ever touched your health system. You have to attract that segment and meet them where they are. That requires different thinking than for engaging with patients — who are also consumers — where the goals and focus on clinical outcomes or their episodic care may be different.”

Serving Consumers Anytime, Anywhere

So where to start? One of consumerism’s key tenets is serving individuals the way they want to be served — anytime, anywhere and through any channel (in person, by email, chat, phone, website or mobile device) they prefer. This doesn’t always align with culture, organizational structures or information systems that are common to health systems today.

The health system has historically been a gatekeeper to specialized knowledge, skills and facilities. To continue to attract and serve patients in the consumerism era, the gatekeeper needs to become more of a prospector and evangelist. The “prospector” carefully identifies specific needs for care in its community, then the “evangelist” proactively makes contact — before care is needed — to educate individuals and populations about their risks, needs and care options.

Health care professionals have traditionally provided this information and engaged patients in the captive environment of the hospital or the doctor’s office, encounters that are scheduled weeks in advance. This doesn’t always align with today’s consumer expectations for on-demand access and instant gratification. By organizing a business model and processes that cater to this new vision of the customer experience, Netflix has achieved market capitalization of more than $70 billion, while Blockbuster Video has gone out of business — a set of circumstances that was unthinkable for most people 15 years ago.

The internet is an excellent medium for providing anytime, anywhere access, and patient portals are highly effective for channeling that medium to health care consumers.

 “Apple, and Disney all started in garages. Health care needs more ‘garage’ organizations,” says Michael Archuleta, director of information technology services at Mt. San Rafael Hospital in Colorado, a two-time Most Wired Hospital honoree that is attempting to become the smallest hospital to achieve Stage 3 Meaningful Use certification.

Providing Instant and Targeted Access to Information

Mt. San Rafael is depending on its patient portal to be a leading contributor to improved patient engagement. As part of a program to improve patient engagement and the patient experience, the hospital increased promotion for its portal, including intensive education for frontline staff so they could inform patients about its capabilities. Archuleta credits education and promotion efforts for driving a 40 percent increase in portal traffic, “Which is really big for a rural access hospital,” he says.

Mt. San Rafael’s is utilizing its patient portal as an integrated component of the YourCareEverywhereTM (YCE)2 Consumer Engagement Solution that the hospital is using. YourCareEverywhere provides a web and mobile platform for engaging with consumers and patients. It integrates with electronic health record systems and consumer mobile apps, and provides a dashboard for patients to consolidate and manage their care information. The American Hospital Association (AHA) has awarded its exclusive endorsement to YourCareEverywhere’s Consumer Engagement Solution.

 SHSMD Executive Director Diane Weber, R.N., reports that hospitals are using different technology tools and data sources to develop a more comprehensive view of patients so they can improve their engagement. Retail Health Strategies for Hospitals: Case Studies from the Field a joint report from the AHA’s Hospitals in Pursuit of Excellence (HPOE) and the Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET) — provides several examples of the approach.

Enhancements to customer relationship management (CRM) systems are a particular area of current focus. “CRM started as a marketing tool to help get an enriched view of patients and prospective patients. Now hospitals and health systems are working to integrate their CRM system with many other internal and external data sources to support population health and other key consumer and patient goals,” Portacci says.

Weber adds, “Hospitals and health systems are seeing the value of being able to personalize and respond to individuals based on data. The more data sources you can merge with the CRM, the more your message is going to resonate with that individual.”

Notice that Weber said “message.” Patient engagement in the consumerism era involves more than exchanging and managing the patient’s personal health information. Successful patient engagement involves engaging consumers with health and wellness information on an ongoing basis, not only at the moment the consumer is seeking care. Content marketing (which is oriented to delivering resources that emphasize education more than promotion) is a growing trend among hospitals and health systems. SHSMD’s conference sessions about data-based storytelling and consumerism are among its most popular resources.

Weber envisions cognitive computing (IBM’s Watson is one example) being used to support future patient engagement advances.

“There is phenomenal potential not only to get the right messages to consumers and patients, but actually to change behaviors,” says Weber. “We can take engagement to another level.”

Before that, start small and add on as time and resources allow. “Not every organization can invest right away in higher-end technology to better understand its consumers,” says Portacci. “But every organization is more data-rich than it is data-starved, and understanding key analytics around your consumers and taking action is important.”

“Small things can make a dramatic improvement on your HCAHPS scores,” Archuleta says. Emergency department (ED) wait times were a leading drag on his hospital’s patient satisfaction scores. To address that patient frustration, the IT department developed an app that allows customers to check in to the ED from a mobile device. The hospital also installed a large digital sign in registration that shows how long each patient has been waiting and where the patient is in the queue. Before the sign, patients tended to think they had been waiting longer than they had; seeing the actual time helped reduce frustration. Patient satisfaction scores went up after those measures were introduced, even though the app and sign do not cause wait times to go down. The biggest difference they make is making patients more informed, and by extension, more empowered.

“We have a saying here: ‘Meet your new CEO — the patient,’” Archuleta says. “The easiest way to determine how you can improve patient engagement and patient care is to focus on the patient.”


[i] Kaufman Hall “2016 STATE OF CONSUMERISM IN HEALTHCARE: The Words Don’t Match the Pictures” November 2016.

2YourCareEverywhere by YourCareUniverse, Inc., a MEDHOST company