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Using social media to improve the healthcare consumer experience

By Bret Schroeder and Neha Om, PA healthcare experts.

Healthcare organizations (both payer and provider) are continuing to struggle with the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Some of the impact of the ACA was intended, such as allowing consumers to choose healthcare coverage on exchanges. However, others were not  such as leaving consumers at the mercy of systems that simply weren't ready to handle the influx of consumer demand and their needs. These struggles are particularly painful in a world where social media has become the norm rather than the exception. Today’s healthcare consumers have high expectations that are being set outside of the healthcare industry. In addition, the ability of a consumer to quickly publicly socialize even the slightest poor experience can be challenging to payers and providers who may not be ready to respond. While social media can be a “problem,” it can also be the “solution” if viewed as a requirement instead of a “side of the desk” project.

The fall out

As the Affordable Care Act went into place in January of 2014, there was a media frenzy reporting about consumers suddenly finding themselves without coverage. Many healthcare payers were unprepared for the backlash not only from the media, but also from consumers taking action via social media outlets. While payers had spent millions of dollars on initiatives to improve customer experience, most were unprepared for the impact of the ACA. According to The Associated Press, at least 4.7 million Americans received notices that their health plans were cancelled. During the following few months after the ACA was implemented, Converseon (a leading social strategy and analytics company) reported that 41% of tweets mentioning the ACA were negative. Not only did this cause a media firestorm, but also a lack of credibility and trust in health insurers and the administration. In the coming years consumers will have more  decision-making power in their health plans, causing this problem to grow exponentially with the use of social media. However, there are success stories that provide hope as we enter another period of open enrollment.

A real world challenge

A pregnant woman went in for a routine checkup, only to find that unbeknownst to her, her coverage had been cancelled. Rightfully frustrated and stressed, she posted her experience on Twitter, specifically mentioning the insurance company who had dropped her coverage. Within 30 minutes, the company contacted her via private messaging to help her address her concern. Even though it was after hours for the company’s call center, they passed her information on to their social care customer service agent who called her to intervene. The agent who had been briefed on the situation was compassionate, responsive and was able to resolve the issue. It was true that her coverage had been cancelled, but she actually had coverage under a new plan and the eligibility system wasn’t updated causing the issue.

Given the fact that many insurers have legacy systems that don't communicate between each other, and the fact that service channels are fragmented, it is likely that these types of situations will only continue to grow. As consumer choice becomes more prevalent it’s important that insurers react quickly to negative experiences. It will be some time before healthcare payers and providers have capabilities like Zappos or Amazon. However, there are several keys to cost effectively leveraging social media to improve overall customer experience.

Social media imperatives

  • A well-formulated plan – It is critical to have a plan for not only monitoring and response, but also in crisis situations. Without a good plan, companies tend to be reactive and disorganized which typically leads to a poor response (and consumer experience). Even worse, reactionary responses can also cause irreversible reputation damage to the brand. 
  • A well-trained and dedicated team – The good news is that you don’t need an army of social media experts to make a significant and meaningful impact. However, it is important that you don’t try and “learn on the fly”. Hire or contract a dedicated, experienced team that has been through social media crisis in the past. Retain resources that are passionate about social media, familiar with regulatory reform and have a focus on the customer. Customer focus and empathy are the keys to success. 
  • A defined starting point – Don't try and conquer the world in the beginning. In most healthcare environments, social media is almost taboo. Traditionally healthcare has been the ivory tower and the consumer seen as uneducated and not central to the process. Cultural change will come slowly, and only based on quantifiable evidence. There is little tolerance for “the art of social media” in the beginning. Your social media plan and team should define where to start, as well as the scope of how social media will be incorporated. Defining the boundaries is critical in the initial stages of a social media initiative. 
  • Response readiness – Once the social channel is opened, it will be critically important to make sure that the team, systems and organization are ready. It is difficult to predict the demand when a crisis emerges, but scenario planning will be a key to success. Creating certain scenario responses for the most common consumer service issues will help the social media team respond effectively to consumer posts when a crisis emerges. It is important to create detailed scenarios that contain relevant information. A response that is not well thought out or is too generic will have the opposite effect and can damage the overall consumer experience. 
  • Commitment – The last and perhaps the most important dimension is commitment to the channel. Launching in a half-hearted way is worse than not launching at all. Best in class health care companies that succeed in the social channel ensure that they have the resources, training, plan, and sponsorship to carry out the level of service that consumers expect. The company needs to be able to not only push the best in class frequency/quality content for that channel but also respond to the incoming feedback. Do not launch anything you cannot support; it’s better to be absent than half-present.

What the future holds

Healthcare companies have only just started to truly think about how to manage the customer experience and how social media plays into their strategy. Most healthcare companies are years behind companies that manage consumer experience as a core piece of their business. As the healthcare landscape changes individuals that leverage social media will have more power. Payers and providers must be prepared for socially engaged consumers who are advocating for their health. In reality, this socially engaged and competent consumer base will have more at stake as healthcare decisions and outcomes are much more critical than buying a pair of shoes online. It will be important for healthcare companies to take this social challenge seriously and act quickly. A two to three year roadmap building out customer service capabilities will not suffice as consumers will want tangible action – in real time.

For more information on how we can help to improve customer service in healthcare organizations through social media, please contact us now.

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