Changing Customer Engagement at Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Three years ago, Vanderbilt University Medical Center put itself on the examination table. It was taking a strategic look at the overall healthcare industry, trying to get a big picture view of where it was and where it needed to go. The trend was definitely toward the upfront issues of health and wellness—preventative measures that kept people out of the healthcare system. But was that something a healthcare organization that typically deals with issues after the fact could or should get involved with?

Uncertain, officials at Vanderbilt University Medical Center asked the people who would know best: Their customers. The feedback was wide-ranging, said Jill Austin, Chief Marketing Officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, during her session, “A Journey to Health—A Medical Transition,” during the 2017 Customer Expo in Nashville last week.

Some older customers were confused, responding with fear that the medical center was trying to prevent them from access to care. Millennials, on the other hand, were very interested in having the medical center be a health coach.

“Millennials don’t want a relationship with a healthcare provider or primary care physician,” Austin said. “Everything in their world is 24/7—grocery stores, online banking. They want convenience and immediacy. Their thinking about healthcare is ‘What’s near me and works for me.’”

What’s an organization to do? It’s a challenge that’s still being worked out, she said, but Vanderbilt University Medical Center officials are taking steps to transition into both worlds. For example, they’re opening clinics in 14 Walgreens locations in their area as a means of addressing the convenience and immediacy issue. They’re also working with more employers to do health fairs as a means of educating individuals on the importance of getting ahead of health issues.

“For instance, we know that if you get the proper screenings at the right time, it will make a huge difference in your health,” Austin said. “Blood pressure, for example, is a foundational issue about how healthy you’re going to be. Statistics show that if you control it, that will prevent you from moving into a whole host of other problems. That’s really substantial because once you have an issue, you never move back to baseline. You’re always a risk. We want to make it easy for people to get those screens.”

Access to the care, she added, is about as far as they can go when it comes to controlling the situation. Human behavior is an entirely separate and uncontrollable challenge.

“People are always a little aspirational about how much they move and the kinds of food they’re eating,” Austin explained. “Just because you have a calorie count on a bag of Doritos doesn’t mean we’re going to change someone’s decision on eating them. There’s a whole science of behavior and change. We’re actually programmed against change. There’s a thing in the back of your brain that is always thinking, ‘Changing something might mean I’ll die,’ so to change patterns, you have to make bite-sized changes, and you have to understand why you are doing it.”

One of the best motivators to get people to change, Austin said, is other people. They produce blogs and other social media posts that customers can read and say: “That person is just like me. Maybe I can do that.”

The transition is just beginning, Austin said, for Vanderbilt University Medical Center officials and where it might lead remains unclear. Their examination is ongoing, and they’ve even begun to explore topics such as artificial intelligence or programming information into a cloud-based voice service such as Siri or Alexa.

“There’s no question we are in an industry that has been disrupted,” she said. “There’s a lot of changes going on. Healthcare is still built on the fact that, because of the way insurance works, you do not know what the true cost is. We see healthcare going more and more in the direction of customers being billed directly. Last Thursday, we flipped the switch on a tech platform across the board where we don’t want anyone filling out anything on paper anymore. That’s the direction everything is going.”

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