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  • Writer's pictureBart Ingram & Todd Gentzel

Inside the Mind of the Modern Healthcare Consumer

Over the years, we’ve worked across just about every facet of the healthcare economy. We’ve also had the privilege of working with many of the world’s most recognizable consumer brands. This article is an effort to share what we’ve learned, explore what it means to be consumer-centered in healthcare and reflect on the work ahead.

The making of the modern healthcare consumer

With roots in the late 19th century, consumerism came into its own more than a half-century later in the 1950s. America leveraged its unique capacity for innovation and its ability to rapidly scale production to create the conditions for success in World War II. Peacetime brought with it an opportunity for the United States to focus its industrial might on consumer markets, which led to an era of unprecedented economic growth.

Today, consumerism is an everyday fact of life. Our expectations are shaped by the thousands of interactions and transactions we engage in each year, a small fraction of which involve the provision of services in traditional healthcare settings. So as we explore what healthcare consumers want, let’s not lose sight of the much broader context that is continuously shaping their expectations.

So what is it that healthcare consumers really want?

Healthcare consumers want to be treated like individuals

Consumers want to be recognized and valued by the businesses they frequent. They want to have their distinctiveness acknowledged in their interactions. That’s why personalization is a foundational part of virtually every mainstream consumer experience.

Online retailers, digital services and social media platforms are consistently raising the bar, delivering increasingly personalized experiences for their customers. Unfortunately, healthcare organizations have struggled to keep pace, often falling short of meeting evolving consumer expectations.

If we’re honest, healthcare consumers are routinely being asked to reintroduce themselves and answer the same or similar questions. They’re often confronted with confusing information, counterintuitive workflows and poorly designed experiences. It would be easy to dismiss these as small inconveniences that have little or no impact on the care they receive, but that would be a mistake. Failure to address these and other deficiencies will only serve to increase an already growing consumer expectation gap.

Addressing these deficits can be challenging, but adopting a context-rich approach to identity management is a good start. Everything related to personalization flows from an ability to understand who the consumer is and how their history and preferences influence their expectations. This is well beyond the functionality that you’ll find in an Electronic Medical Record or even a traditional Identity and Access Management tool, but it’s foundational for achieving the level of personalization that consumers expect.

With a deeper understanding of who the consumer is, how they live, what they need and how they prefer to access care, we can leverage an increasingly sophisticated group of tools to meet and even anticipate their needs. The world outside of healthcare is setting the pace for personalization; healthcare organizations must make up considerable ground or risk creating significant consumer dissatisfaction.

Consumers want to be able to make informed decisions

Regardless of the level of personalization, healthcare can be confusing and incredibly difficult to navigate. Even for those of us who’ve worked in the industry, much of what’s required to make well-informed decisions remains elusive.

Healthcare consumers want to understand their options and be able to compare medically appropriate alternatives. They want to know the quality and availability of providers, how long it will take to be seen and how much it will cost. In an ideal world, they would love to be able to learn from the experience of others and factor that into their decision-making.

In most industries, these would be considered table stakes. Unfortunately, in healthcare, we’ve struggled to meet even these basic consumer expectations.

Once again, this is where the larger consumer market comes into play. Consumers have unprecedented access to information on just about every commercially available product and service. They’ve grown accustomed to doing their own research and making well-informed purchase decisions with little effort. These behaviors are so commonplace that the conditions required to make them possible are taken for granted. When those conditions aren’t in place, and those behaviors aren’t enabled, consumers notice.

This is arguably the single greatest pain point for modern healthcare consumers. They’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the industry’s lack of transparency and its perceived unwillingness to provide meaningful decision support. At seemingly every turn, from provider selection all the way through to payment, healthcare consumers are faced with incomplete, confusing and even contradictory information.

Yes, it’s complex and often challenging to meet these expectations. That’s the nature of healthcare delivery and finance. But this isn’t the consumer’s problem to solve. The industry has an obligation to provide clear choices and quality healthcare without all of the ambiguity.

Consumers want to be empowered with access to care on their own terms

Beyond informed decision-making, people want to be empowered to act on what they’ve learned and take a far more significant role in managing their health and the health of their families. As the industry has transitioned to a multi-modal care delivery model, consumers have come to expect the broadest possible view of available options and the ability to directly schedule their care.

They’re not interested in your call center or the narrow find-a-physician solution on your website. They want to be able to explore the full range of medically appropriate options for themselves, evaluating alternatives and scheduling the care that’s right for them. Their choices may not always align with what we prefer or even choose for ourselves, but that’s the point. Gone are the days when consumers were content playing a passive role in managing their health.

Modern consumers want more. They’ve asked for and deserve solutions that genuinely empower them and their healthcare choices. In practical terms, this means that healthcare organizations must widen the aperture, providing consumers with far greater visibility of what’s available and appropriate given their needs. It also means balancing the need to enable greater autonomy with the ability to provide just-in-time insight and guidance when it’s needed.

The challenging part isn’t the technology or even transitioning consumers to a new way of discovering and scheduling care. The hard work ahead relates to the transformation required within healthcare organizations. Introducing new modalities, opening inventory and removing gatekeepers will inevitably challenge long-held perspectives and well-established business practices. There are no shortcuts, as there is significant work to be done to create the conditions for meeting the expectations of a genuinely empowered consumer.

Consumers want a coherent experience within and between venues of care

Consumers don’t compartmentalize their experiences. The relationships they develop with companies, products and services are the result of a complex sequence of interactions. Each encounter is evaluated through the lens of previous interactions that either contribute to or detract from a positive and coherent perception of the organization.

As healthcare providers continue to evolve and expand their portfolios to include a growing range of digital, ambulatory and retail sites, the need for a coherent experience across modalities of care has never been greater. Traditional branding and asset-level experience design initiatives won’t be enough. An enterprise-level commitment to service design is likely the best way forward for those looking to drive utilization across modalities and increase the overall asset value of their investments.

Service design has its roots in banking, but it has been broadly adopted as a discipline across virtually every consumer-facing sector. In her landmark article in the Harvard Business Journal, Lynn Shostack noted that ‘leaving services to individual talent and managing the pieces rather than the whole make a company more vulnerable and creates a service that reacts slowly to market needs and opportunities.’ This speaks to both the promise and the peril of the moment. Healthcare delivery is changing, consumer options are proliferating and windows of opportunity are opening and closing much more swiftly.

Service design focuses on the people, processes, structures, technologies and resources required to deliver value to the consumer. Unlike other methods, the focus is on empowering the organization and its people, who then, in turn, deliver greater value to consumers. For that reason, service design represents a unique co-creation opportunity with powerful implications for scaled transformation and in our opinion, the best hope we have for delivering on the promise for consumer-centered healthcare.


Consumerism has had an unquestionable impact on virtually every aspect of modern life, including how we think about, access, and evaluate the care we receive. Current trends point toward a future that includes an empowered consumer that has the information and the tools necessary to take on a far more proactive role in managing their health.

The healthcare organizations that are taking proactive steps to transition to an increasingly sophisticated multi-modal model for care delivery and an enterprise-wide approach to consumer experience will realize the benefits of a much more discerning and sophisticated consumer healthcare market.

Todd Gentzel is a Partner at BigBend Co. and an expert in strategic foresight, design futures and product development. He’s been a senior leader in agencies, consulting firms and client-side organizations in the healthcare, energy and aviation sectors, and holds the Oxford University | HEC Paris Masters of Science in Consulting for Change.

Bart Ingram is a Partner at BigBend Co. and an expert in service design, creative direction and product development. He's been a senior leader in the design industry growing and managing design practices at Arc/LeoBurnett, Razorfish, Fjord/Accenture and PwC.


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