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Who cares whether you’re called a patient or a customer?

Who cares whether you’re called a patient or a customer?

Why the point is to leverage the power of digital to deliver an excellent patient journey, not what words we use to describe it.

Why the point is to leverage the power of digital to deliver an excellent patient journey, not what words we use to describe it.

The debate about whether a patient should be treated like a consumer is one that’s been going on for a long time. In the late 1990s, it was argued that the UK’s NHS needed to embrace the idea that a patient is a consumer of its services. A report in the International Journal of Social Economics in 1999 was horrified. The author argued that using the term ‘consumer’ reduced the patient to a passive customer of pre-packaged healthcare.’ He argued that, instead, the patient should be viewed as a partner in a ‘continuing process of inquiry.’ But the NHS’s own Patient Experience e-book, published in 2013, began with the sentences, ‘Imagine an NHS service that starts with the patient – a service that listens to patient and family needs, and then utilises the skills and expertise of both the clinician and patient to design the experience to meet these needs. That’s what using patient experience information is all about.”

And that’s true. But in a world where the NHS, as well as all other healthcare organisations, are under constant stress, the ideal patient experience is proving hard to deliver. The first report focused on the fact that patients are always on a journey which should be rich in information and personal contact. It should also give them the opportunity to be part of the decisions made by the healthcare professionals and the organisations they work for.

Part of the hostility to the idea of treating a patient like a consumer was the perceived link of ‘commodifying’ healthcare to the very different healthcare system of the United States. There it’s taken for granted that healthcare is more consumer-driven. At least, that’s what we think is the case. But it was only a few years ago that research by brand experience specialists, Siegal & Gale, found that healthcare, which is the fifth biggest industry in the US, came last out of 25 industries for ‘simplicity of experience.’ The author of the report came to the opposite conclusion to the economist; “We need to stop using the word ‘patient’ and replace it with… ‘health consumer.’”

Patients? Consumers? They’re just people on a journey

So, the debate is one which will go on. In the meantime, there are real people out there who need access to good healthcare, and they want to be assured that they’ll get the treatment they need when they need it. They also want to be at the heart of the process. They want more than remedial treatment; they want advice and support to prevent diseases as well as live fulfilling lives in spite of their conditions. Simply, they want a rewarding, supportive, reassuring experience. They probably don’t care whether they’re called ‘consumers’ or ‘customers’ or ‘patients’ in internal documents or policy papers. They just want to get better and stay well.

That’s why the concept of the ‘patient experience’ or ‘patient journey’ is so important. There is a lot of evidence that when the journey and the experience are good, patient outcomes are also good. Research published in the BMJ Journal showed that when healthcare organisations get both right, their figures “demonstrate positive associations between patient experience and self-rated and objectively measured health outcomes; adherence to recommended clinical practice and medication; preventive care (such as health-promoting behaviour, use of screening services and immunisation); and resource use (such as hospitalisation, length of stay and primary-care visits).”

So, I believe we need to ditch the semantics and focus on what we can do for healthcare organisations to help them deliver a constantly improving and dynamic patient experience. And yes, I’m still using the word ‘patient.’ The word itself actually comes from the Latin for – wait for it – ‘to suffer or bear.’ That’s one reason why some want to ditch it. But very few of us know any Latin, and so the inherent passivity of the root of the word isn’t relevant.

The point is when we’re interacting with healthcare professionals there should be a bond of trust. Or, you might agree with the 20th-century giant of literature, George Bernard Shaw, when he said (rather cynically) ‘Let no one suppose that the words ‘doctor’ and ‘patient’ can disguise from the parties the fact that they are employer and employee.’

Pain isn’t always the point

I don’t agree with GBS. Not at all. For me, the patient experience is critical to the success of not just a healthcare system – public or private – but of wider society too. We have to employ digital technology to improve the patient journey, before, during, and after they engage with professionals whether that’s at a GP surgery, online, at home, or in any kind of medical facility. Digital tools, from simple online sites to generative AI, can broaden access, improve choice, and provide patients with the information and support they need when they need it.

There are many guides to how digital can improve the patient journey. You just have to Google the phrase and there’s an abundance of advice (or you could get ChatGPT to summarise it for you!). But I think we just have to focus on the human aspects of the subject. Research conducted by The Patient Experience Journal (yes, there really is such a publication), found that the top attributes which defined a good patient experience were “1) communication; (2) respect for patients; (3) information and education; (4) patient-centred care; (5) comfort and pain.”[5] I think it’s fascinating that ‘comfort and pain’ didn’t come first or even second. The top four are exactly the benefits that can be delivered and augmented by digital tools such as CRM, or as I like to call it PRM – Patient Relationship Management.

We need to be ‘champions of human experience’

And if we’re going to modify more consumer/business-focused jargon to fit in with the unique needs of healthcare, then why not ditch CX (customer experience) for PX (patient experience)? That’s what the Patient Experience Journal does. It likes to be known as the PXJ. As one of its editorials in 2023 put it, we need ‘champions of human experience’ to improve healthcare provision and patient outcomes. At the heart of that effort is ‘agility’ – using digital to innovate and reconfigure the way healthcare is delivered.

I think that’s critical right now because we’ve reached an inflexion point. Digital generations are moving through the inevitable phases of life, and that means they’re going to be engaging with healthcare more often for a wide range of reasons. They’re used to technology. They rely on it. So, we need to ensure that it’s a central part of their journey. That will speed healthcare delivery and deepen the ability of professionals to serve them. And all of us, whatever our age. At Salesforce we work to leverage the power of our HealthCloud and MarketingCloud for the sake of people who are engaging with healthcare. Call them whatever you want, and we’ll help you serve them better.

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[5] Patient Experience Journal Volume 10, Issue 1– 2023, pp. 15-63

Nick Barnes

Senior Regional Vice President, Healthcare & Life sciences, Salesforce

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