Healthcare portals: why is the value of good customer experience hard to articulate financially?

I have used five different healthcare insurer portals in the past 8 years due to job and address changes. Keep in mind that I also had a least five other portals to deal with for vision, dental, and FSA accounts. I will admit I try to avoid provider portals if I can, as I’ve never had any luck accessing or using them. And it seems like every bill I’ve received has had a different billing portal with really arcane processes (and URL) for paying (don’t get me going). In the end, the quality and usefulness of all these portals varied greatly, and they were almost all consistently bad.*

Why is this? Will this change?

Not exactly 2017-style
Being a product-minded person, I was able to see the business requirements of each of the portals. And I could also understand many of the design decisions – some based on legacy systems or based on market sophistication.

Granted, a healthcare portal has a lot to do. For example, healthcare insurance members need to review or file claims, find providers and estimate costs, and refer to benefit eligibility. On the provider side, portals need to provide medical record information, scheduling, and billing.

But often these services are not provided in a way that takes into account the member’s health fluency, plan, costs, or even that they are using a browser or mobile in 2017. All too often the portal requirements seem tied to the legacy systems of a bunch of claims mangers or billing people.

Also, these requirements often lead to very simplistic features, such as downloading a PDF instead of just reading it on a web page, or a long list that the user has to traverse manually one by one rather than allowing search or quick peeks, or making the customer type in all the billing information rather than retrieving it automatically from the system. I could go on.

I can understand getting away with this poor design with folks who really don’t have expectations that a provider or payer offer a web interface as easy to use as Facebook. But I feel that some of these portals are not even trying; they are checking off some list of CMS requirements and not investing a penny or second more.

Are healthcare portals important?
I have been struggling to understand this gap between what is deployed (shudder) and what we all know is important for customer service. Providers and payers know that patient engagement is important. We all know that most people head to the web before making a healthcare decision, be it for health information or for pricing information. And many believe portals are a critical element for patient health.

Alas, use of healthcare portals has been low. And these portals are not designed to engage millennials, who have high expectations of what a web-based service should provide, not to mention addressing the needs of the aging and poor. Also, while there seems to be an abundance of health information on the web, few people are able to understand, compare, or predict healthcare costs, something that health portals should be tripping over themselves to provide.

Easy to want, hard to pay for
One of the possible reasons the gap between what we know we need to do and what we end up offering is because the value of good customer experience is easy to appreciate but we can’t seem to articulate the value financially. The gap between appreciating customer service and valuing it happens when customer service is not part of your business model. And healthcare companies, surprisingly, do not seem to include customer service in their business model.

Payers have been talking about engaging the consumer for many years, but few have realized a significant return on their investments to date or been able to really generate lasting value through the execution of their strategies

Source: Proteus Duxbury in Patient Engagement Helps Payers on Affordable Care Act Exchanges

This is just a bad strategy that does not take into account customers. Portals don’t work because the human that is at the center of healthcare is not part of the equation. I find it hard to believe that Target, Delta, or Bank of America have any problem articulating the value of good customer service (go ask American or United Airlines what good customer service costs – and I won’t even go into Uber).

There is hope, though. Following the quote above, Duxbury continues:

Increasing medical loss, however, and low healthcare literacy of consumers within the exchange market is creating renewed impetus to succeed in helping the consumer enroll in the right plan and utilize it in a cost effective fashion.

Source: Proteus Duxbury in Patient Engagement Helps Payers on Affordable Care Act Exchanges

Perhaps healthcare organizations will realize that improving how they provide value to customers via their portals might actually be seen as having financial value. Perhaps with this renewed impetus we will also involve the customer when designing portals, making sure that what is designed fits the needs of the customer rather than the needs of a arcane paper-based processes or the checklist of some government reimbursement program.

Day 1 companies
These customers are the reason-d’etre of any healthcare organization trying to make people healthy and happy. Healthcare organizations need to take responsibility and help their customers with access to care by guiding member to cost-effective plans and care, with health fluency by providing health information and insights into care transactions, and with communication with their health teams.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We have many examples of what good customer service levels are and how to build great customer portals. And we have ways of involving the voice of the customer in the design process.

If you still think there’s no way to articulate the value of a good customer portal, read this from Jeff Bezos, on being obsessed with customer trust and customer happiness. To him, Day 1 is a customer-obsessed culture that you have to be quick and work hard to maintain. Day 2 on the other hand:

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

Source: Jeff Bezos in This is the Jeff Bezos playbook for preventing Amazon’s demise

This is personal
My frustration with healthcare portals is what got me to start 777labs. As I say often, I’m passionate about the intersection of healthcare, mobile, design, and data; particularly how we can improve the way healthcare organizations engage with customers, patients, and families.

And I don’t do this for the thrill of it: I’m a customer too.

What are you doing to be customer-obsessed? How does that translate to your customer service, your customer portal? How much do you use healthcare portals?

Image from the3cats

*I would show you screen shots and describe how bad they all are, but all of them locked me out 18 months after my membership expired. How thoughtful. I’d like to say it’s because of some legal requirement, but it still is krappy customer service.