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Readers Write: When Hospitals Leave Patients in the Wild West, They Turn to Dr. Google

August 16, 2021 Readers Write 1 Comment

When Hospitals Leave Patients in the Wild West, They Turn to Dr. Google
By Mike McSherry

Mike McSherry is co-founder and CEO of Xealth of Seattle, WA.


Good or bad, everyone has a memorable care experience. This unites us all. The division comes with how it is handled. Viewing the patient as a customer is not a new concept. So why don’t more systems anticipate our needs? Think of your experience with Google or Instagram ads. Scrolling through websites or social media, I think they may know my habits better than the doctor.

I spent 20 years in consumer technology, co-founding companies such as Boost Mobile and Swype, before joining the Providence health system as an entrepreneur in residence. I understand digital innovation in the age of immediacy. With so much information at the patient’s fingertips, it seems like a no-brainer to consult the internet. Why go to an in-person appointment when Dr. Google is just a house click away?

According to Comprehensive Psychiatry, “Googling symptoms results in an escalation of concerns and excessive worrying about symptoms.” It’s our job as healthcare purveyors to ensure the best experience possible for the patient. This experience should be comprehensive, forward-thinking, and, most importantly, conveniently available at 2:00 a.m. when a concerned father wants to know about his child’s fever.

Many times, patients are required to go for an in-person appointment for something they see as simple. Then, wait weeks or longer for that appointment. Once there, physicians have just 15 minutes to address the visit reason, and then … what? If the patient forgets something said or thinks of a question later, there are typically three choices: play phone tag with the office, wait until the next appointment, or consult Dr. Google.

Who is stepping in to fill that information void between appointments? People trust their doctors, but will search online if there is no simple way to get the answers they seek, finding who knows what in their Wild West Web search. Hospitals and health systems would benefit through offering a thorough digital experience. Not only would patients be receiving credible information, it will also give one more touch point, tightening the patient relationship while reducing office phone tag.

Garnering patient trust requires that health organizations update the user experience to accommodate immediacy and convenience. Think of your own care experience. While physically in the office, everything you are told either sounds great or could be confusingly technical. A few hours later, you question certain details or lose the paper print out. It is all too enticing to do a quick search.

Health technology can extend clinical time beyond the office and to the patient. The pandemic drove that point home, along with care options. There are several ways a doctor can be present, along with prescribing apps, health monitors, Ace bandages, diets, or anything that could improve the patient experience. This way, patients can continue receiving clinicians’ recommendations rather than an article Aunt Ada saw on Facebook — thank you, Aunt Ada.

Adding communication channels from the care team, especially digital ones, instantly raises questions from some hospitals. Who will handle the extra workload and will this hurt reimbursement? With the former, automation can handle much of this with triggers based on appointment type and diagnosis codes. Digital tools should be scalable, enhance service lines, and extend care, helping health organizations provide live-saving programs outside their four walls.

Healthcare may be the only industry where the person ordering the treatment is different from the one who uses it, who is also different from who is paying (try that at a restaurant). While no one likes to talk about it, the money for digital solutions must come from somewhere.

CMS now reimburses for several virtual tools, with commercial payers following suit. Further, open lines of communication and accurate, timely information can prevent emergency room readmissions, assisting quality scores and reimbursement.

There are also the more long-term benefits of patient satisfaction, one metric in determining reimbursement rates, and recommendations. As with other areas of our lives, we want to go where people know our names. Meeting people where they are with targeted, accurate health information furthers the patient bond and keeps the Dr. out of Google.

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Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. You bring up excellent points that underscore the contrast between healthcare serving patients and B2C tech/e-commerce companies serving customers. Your article resonated with the many years I worked outside of healthcare IT. So please oblige me to let it all out finally.

    So, why aren’t we in a better spot in healthcare? I believe we would all agree that our health is more important than shopping. So why does retail provide a better customer experience than healthcare organizations?

    Retailers offer a unified omnichannel customer experience, whether you are offline or online and at any time. I believe the root problem of why patients turn to Dr. Google is the current fee-for-service reimbursement model (follow the money). Payers essentially sit between the customer and the provider. Thus there may be confusion on who the real customer is, underscoring your principal-agent problem (the person ordering isn’t the person paying). For the foreseeable future, payers will continue to be part of this inefficient system (until smart contracts and blockchain disintermediate them – save for future discussion). I believe the shift to the value-based care model will serve as a proxy (and hope) for a temporary fix to solve the principal-agent problem. That is, the patient’s experience and perceived value will be a new variable in the payment equation. Thus, healthcare organizations will be incentivized to provide a better patient experience through digital health, thus putting Dr. Google out to pasture or at a minimum semi-retirement. They will accomplish this by deploying the retailer’s omnichannel playbook to provide an amazing buyer’s journey experience. KPIs such as CAC (customer acquisition cost), LTV (loan to value), and NPS (net promote score) will emerge in the new digital health vernacular. On a final note, I believe healthcare organizations need to recruit more leaders from the e-commerce industry to drive this change.

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