Merchandising healthcare access: adopting e-commerce techniques

As big tech players like Amazon make further inroads into the industry, an expert on bringing e-commerce strategies to healthcare has some advice for how hospitals and health systems can compete to improve the patient experience.

As the consumerization of healthcare continues to take shape, the next frontier of healthcare access may well be merchandising healthcare inventory, contended Derek Streat, cofounder and CEO of DexCare, a digital transformation platform vendor.

By combining healthcare and e-commerce technologies and strategies, healthcare provider organizations can dramatically improve the digital discovery of care and access to it for patients, he said.

And as workforce shortages continue and tech giants like Amazon push in, these digital consumer experiences will be critical for traditional providers like health systems to operate sustainably, scale care delivery and access, and survive in this competitive and volatile landscape, he added.

We interviewed Streat to discuss merchandising healthcare inventory, digital consumer experiences, and actionable advice for hospitals and health systems on merchandising healthcare.

Q. As the consumerization of healthcare continues to take shape, you suggest the next frontier of healthcare access will be merchandising healthcare inventory. Please explain what this is and how this works.

A. Finding and scheduling a doctor's appointment online should be exactly like buying pantry items for your house on your favorite online retailer's website – efficient, straightforward and meeting your expectations.

Unfortunately, that's often not the case when a patient is seeking care. Most often, individuals must visit multiple sites before finding the correct one for scheduling, or they get directed to call the office and are inevitably placed on a long hold, or they find the physician they wanted to see only to realize they aren't accepting new patients.

The current state of care discovery and appointment scheduling is very frustrating, and we need to simplify the process. In order to optimize care access, health systems need to apply online merchandising.

In this approach, merchandising care inventory means making care options, provider information and appointment times more easily discoverable, accessible and accurate – just like an online retailer. While merchandising is a new approach to the healthcare sector, the innovation is nothing to be afraid of.

It means getting things to consumers more intelligently and effectively, something that both health systems and patients stand to benefit from. In healthcare, merchandising is all about anticipating patients' needs and matching them with ideal, customizable care options.

How does this work? By using the same proven technology and tactics as online retailers, care discovery can be as easy as browsing your favorite store or booking a restaurant reservation, and appointment scheduling can resemble a digital storefront.

The patient can begin their journey by making a search on a search engine or a website, including the health system's digital front door. The platform would be able to filter search results based on the patient's needs, display real-time availability for care options, and show additional information like the providers' specialties.

Once the patient identifies the best care option, they can book the appointment quickly, with just a few clicks. When done correctly, the online merchandising of healthcare makes the process of care discovery and access extremely intuitive.

Q. As workforce shortages continue and tech giants like Amazon move in, why do you think these digital consumer experiences will be critical for hospitals and health systems?

A. Competition is tougher than ever for health systems to survive in the consumer-centric healthcare landscape. This year, to many providers' dismay, we saw big tech players like Amazon push further into care delivery.

While this stoked fear for some, I see Amazon's entrance as the result of the outdated way systems manage care. Big tech merging into healthcare is a sign that our health systems need disruption and a technical revolution.

Almost all industries are now characterized by e-commerce traits: digital customization, a merchandising mindset and retail centricity. These will define the next frontier of healthcare access and determine the organizations that survive and those that do not.

Amazon entering care delivery should encourage our health systems to aspire to new visions for patient care and challenge the way care delivery has operated for decades. Ongoing patient surges, workforce shortages and unstable financial conditions have exacerbated longstanding inefficiencies within the U.S. healthcare system.

Bulky online scheduling tools are no longer enough to attract and retain patients. Yet before health systems throw up their hands and concede to tech giants, we need to realize that health systems have an essential advantage over the new players: community trust.

Health systems are facets of our townships and cities. They employ us, keep us healthy and provide essential public health services. To keep them alive and retain these pillars of our communities, they must learn from big tech disruptors and retail leaders.

Tech giants such as Amazon have a proven ability to attract consumers. The health systems that will secure new patients and keep them coming back will be the ones that build and deliver a powerful digital storefront for healthcare access.

The systems that ask themselves: "What is Amazon bringing that we're not?" will be the ones to survive and succeed. They are ready for the next frontier – merchandising care.

Q. What is some actionable advice for hospitals and health systems you can offer on the subject of merchandising healthcare inventory?

A. Merchandising healthcare inventory begins with understanding the best practices for digital innovation. Generally, I recommend that health systems follow these steps before implementing any new digital tool: Analyze exactly how digital solutions can best support your health system, select the right solution and the right partner, understand the benefits of change management and how to best facilitate, and execute operational excellence by deeply learning the technology.

In terms of seeking the best platform for merchandising care, look for software that optimizes search capabilities, displays real-time availability and allows patients to book an appointment with a few clicks. This type of software is usually powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, and should enable intelligent patient-demand load balancing across the health system.

Understanding the capabilities and complexities of AI and machine learning is essential to not only choosing the right technology, but also successfully implementing it to effectively merchandise care. Once implemented, using your digital tool to its fullest extent and ensuring the full staff become expert users will enable operational excellence for health systems and create an improved patient experience.