Posted: 05 May 2020 10 min. read

Will consumers trust health care organizations after COVID-19?

By Shane Giuliani, senior manager and Urvi Shah, senior manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Over the course of just two months, the COVID-19 pandemic has fractured a number of assumptions (commonly held by hospital, health system, and health plan executives) about consumers’ attitudes and behaviors toward health care. While the US health care system has been moving toward a more consumer-focused experience, progress has been slow. In some cases, regulatory barriers have made it difficult to create a transparent, consumer-friendly, and highly-personalized experience. Health care leaders’ deeply-ingrained beliefs about what the health system can and can’t do has also held back the pace of change.

The pandemic, however, has caused regulators to remove some regulatory barriers, and some health care executives are beginning to rethink long-held beliefs. Those who don’t question these beliefs now, and in the months to come, could face a consumer-trust problem.

In March, as hospitals and health systems prepared for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases, non-essential procedures and visits were deferred. Some of those services now appear to be on the verge of returning. Several states are preparing to allow hospitals and health systems to resume medical care that had been delayed by the pandemic, as the threat of the pandemic begins to subside. In April—during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis—Deloitte surveyed 1,159 health care consumers to understand the emotional toll of the pandemic and how their attitudes and behaviors in managing their health and well-being are changing. Eighty-two percent of consumers said they are experiencing anxiety or fear, 77 percent feel uncertainty or a lack of control, and 75 percent feel loneliness or a sense of isolation. This is one of the most challenging shared human experiences we’ve seen over the last several decades.

Consumers, however, do intend to return to health facilities, and those organizations expect to see some pent-up demand for primary and specialty care, elective surgeries, and other postponed procedures. Of consumers who had to delay care due to COVID-19, 84 percent said they expect to reschedule primary care visits (13 percent opted for virtual visits); 86 percent intend to reschedule specialty care appointments (12 percent opted for virtual visits); and 95 said they would reschedule elective procedures at some point soon. But now the question is when, where, and to whom will they turn for their care?

In order to maintain or even re-earn the trust of consumers, health care organizations will likely need to demonstrate competence, reliability, transparency—and most importantly—a sense of empathy in how they conduct their operations moving forward. As consumers consider their options for where they’ll get their care, health care leaders should aim to inspire hope to suppress anxiety, create a sense of control that helps reduce uncertainty, and enable the right connections to minimize loneliness and isolation to help consumers get the resources they need.

Decoding the DNA of trust in health care

As consumers begin to re-engage with the health care system, hospitals, health systems, and health plans have an opportunity to remove anxiety and build trust with consumers. The DNA of trust in health care is made up of three core components: Hope, Control, and Connection. Focusing on those three elements, while questioning long-held beliefs about the health care system, can create a stronger level of consumer trust in health care. 

1.   Inspiring HOPE can suppress anxiety: COVID-19 demonstrated how fast and flexible health systems and health plans can be in response to an emergency. Health plans had to be flexible with coverage and change their benefits mid-year—calling into doubt the previously-held belief that health systems and health insurance benefits are inflexible and cannot adapt to consumer needs.

According to our survey results, 51 percent of health care consumers said their health plan gave them a feeling of confidence about their safety during the COVID-19 crisis, and 54 percent said their health plan demonstrated interest in their health and well-being during the crisis. Some health care organizations threw out big chunks of their standard product and service rule book and responded to this crisis with empathy to create the right experience of health care services and health plan benefits. In the post-COVID-19 world, it will likely be important for health care organizations to reimagine product design to sustain the trust created through the COVID-19 experience.

2.   Empowering consumers to take CONTROL can remove uncertainty: COVID-19 has helped illustrate that consumers want more control over their health care experiences. This calls into question the belief that consumers are unable or unwilling to navigate their own care. Our survey results illustrate that consumers are becoming better informed and more engaged in their own care. For example, 46 percent of consumers with health insurance said they have gained a better understanding of their benefits since the COVID-19 crisis began. Once the pandemic dissipates, we expect consumers will continue to want this increased sense of understanding of (and control over) their health care experience. Health plans and health systems should increase their emphasis on providing transparent information as well as personalized recommendations that enable members and patients to make informed decisions and feel ownership in directing their health.

To enable a further sense of ownership of their health care experience, health organizations should abandon the belief that consumers should not own their own health care data, or that consumers would be unwilling to share their data with health care (or even non-health care) organizations. According to our survey, 69 percent of consumers are now open to sharing personal health information with their health plan, while 71 percent are willing to sharing with their preferred local health care system. A willingness to share data could create an opportunity to arm consumers with the information they need to become more proactive decision-makers about managing their health and well-being.

3.   Making the right CONNECTIONS, in person or virtually, can alleviate the sense of isolation: Patients and their family members are likely to be nervous about visiting a hospital or physician office any time soon, and we expect consumers to continue turning to virtual health resources for re-engaging with the health care system. In 2019, only 13 percent of consumers said they or a family member had experienced a virtual or telehealth visit. So far in 2020, that percentage has nearly doubled—to 24 percent—during the COVID-crisis. Moreover, 84 percent of consumers who either had a virtual visit last year or used it for COVID-19 related reasons this year said they were “somewhat satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with their most recent experience. 

Prior to COVID-19, many health care organizations were hesitant to adopt virtual health solutions because they didn’t think consumers or clinicians were ready. Over the last couple months, clinicians and consumers alike have had to embrace virtual solutions in response to the pandemic, and they have had to overcome that hesitation. The rapid adoption of technology demonstrates that health care providers can meet patients where they are. As technology and in-home connectivity improves, we expect virtual health will be seen as an effective way to deliver certain types of care. 

Despite the challenging emotions we’re experiencing right now, we’re also seeing human resilience. When we asked consumers to compare how they feel today compared to how they felt yesterday, 88 percent said they have more hope for the future, 85 percent said they feel they have more control, and 89 percent felt a greater sense of connection to others. For many, the reaction to COVID-19 is literally improving by the day.

Perhaps most encouraging—93 percent of surveyed consumers expressed an increased desire to help others however they can. We are rallying for each other as fellow humans.

Under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care organizations have been required to act fast, moving with more agility than we’ve ever seen in the health care industry. Once they have experienced the start of a new normal, many consumers will likely not revert to their pre-COVID-19 preferences, making it critical for health care organizations to prepare for the future by acting now and doubling down their efforts to elevate the human experienceTM of their members and patients, building trust and gaining long-term loyalty.

Acknowledgements: Emma Ravenscroft, Peggy Bermel, Ekta Verma, Eliana Keinan, Jeannine Sheinberg

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