Five Key Takeaways From Healthcare Conferences in 2021

healthcare conference trends

After two years of Zoom meetings and digital conferences, it was refreshing to finally get together with colleagues and friends in person at HMPS, HLTH and HCIC this fall. 

While these conferences were lightly attended as compared to non-pandemic years, we still covered a lot of ground. So, for those in our industry who weren’t able to attend, here’s a recap of five key themes that were covered across all three events — and why health systems need to pay attention. 

1.  The pandemic shifted everyone’s expectations of digital inside — and outside — of healthcare.

The “Digital Front Door” has never been a more popular concept. Across HMPS, HLTH, and HCIC this fall, everyone was talking about how patients and consumers are researching their healthcare and finding providers to treat them online. We heard a great deal about a renewed focus on how patients are searching for care on (and off!) provider websites. Digital investment is growing across the board: I’ve heard that some marketing teams have completely shifted their budget allocations, with some going as high as 90 percent digital!

At the same time, though, the concept of “Digital Transformation” as a buzzword is getting overplayed. CIOs and CMOs are repeatedly asked “what are we doing for our digital transformation,” and everyone I spoke with noted that they are sick of the term. The entire world went through a digital transformation in 2020, it’s true — but beyond the buzzword, healthcare executives are finally seeing the “digital light” and beginning to realize that you can’t have digital transformation without a full grasp of the patient experience and expectations. This will be a holistic and ongoing process. 

2. Young people aren’t the only ones using digital tools and demanding digital experiences.

One of the most telling quotes of all three conferences was, “We used to think that Millennials were the only ones using digital. But Millennials are now in their forties! So, digital isn’t just for young people anymore.” 

There is (finally) a more reasonable understanding of who is using digital for healthcare, as well as the expectations people have for digital experiences. In July 2020, Experian launched a study with the data point that 60% of people have higher digital expectations than pre-pandemic. Organizations are now starting to see how important these digital expectations are, and they are trying very hard to accommodate digital experiences — with everything from online appointment scheduling, to recrafting their Find a Doctor tools, to incorporating new digital experiences like QR codes on insurance cards and more. People have digital experiences everywhere outside of healthcare, so organizations are now realizing how important it is to incorporate the same types of experiences within the healthcare setting.

3.  Healthcare organizations are not designed with patients in mind (yet).

Organizations are too provider-focused. One thing that I have always noticed about health systems is that, no matter what, health systems paid far more attention to providers than they did to the consumer or patient. This is something that is controversial to write, but it has always been very clear from the outside looking in. At both HLTH and HCIC, speakers commented about how provider-focused healthcare organizations are, and how clunky consumer experiences can be as a result. Patients and consumers will be demanding that their digital experiences in healthcare be like what they find outside of healthcare — and they will start to opt for better convenience and a better experience all together. Organizations talked about how important it will be in the future to provide a better experience, or risk losing a patient to an organization who can.

Personalization is bigger now than pre-pandemic. Speaking of putting the patient or consumer first, a lot of talk at all three conferences centered around personalization. It’s not a new concept, but there was a recognition that healthcare experiences are unique to the individual at all levels — from digital experiences to genetic treatments for specific conditions to outpatient experiences. But, because systems are not designed with patients in mind, personalization is hard.

Patient experience and consumer experience are two very different concepts. Many people were talking about the patient experience as one that is “within the care setting,” but that the consumer experience is centered around the actual experience in finding care. Organizations were starting to talk about bringing on Chief Consumer Officers or Chief Digital Officers to work closely with marketing to identify the ways they can provide a better consumer experience outside of the Patient Experience department. One organization even posited that “Marketing” won’t be called “Marketing” anymore, but may morph into “Consumer Experience & Marketing” as a title or role.

4. Organizations are getting smarter about their data — and how to use it for marketing and strategic initiatives.

To be fully transparent, in the past, most healthcare organizations in the past wouldn’t really look at data — too often, they would just run campaigns and hope for the best.

That’s finally starting to change. Now, organizations are looking at how important data is to making business decisions, and they are laddering this data up to the executive suite. This is allowing organizations to argue for more marketing and IT dollars, as well as to make more strategic decisions about where to focus energies. It’s the first time we’ve started to see healthcare organizations be more disciplined about marketing like non-healthcare organizations, and show that data can help inform strategy and help drive better patient acquisition and outcomes. 

5. Organizations are keenly interested in what is going on with Wal-Mart, CVS and others outside of healthcare.

Any session that included CVS Health, Wal-Mart or Google (especially at HLTH and HCIC) were standing-room only. This is signaling an interest in what is going on with these organizations, but it is also an indicator that traditional health systems may be starting to think about how these organizations may impact their businesses in the long run.

What was interesting about Wal-Mart’s discussion at HCIC is that they explicitly said “we are not here to take your patients” but instead want to focus on Social Determinants of Health. At HLTH, CVS Health maintained that we are “undoctored” and “underdoctored” in this country and can afford to have other organizations outside of health systems take on the burden of primary care. But, it will be inevitable that these organizations will take patients in some way, shape or form from health systems. And if systems are not doing something about this to make the experience better for the patient, it doesn’t matter how much Wal-Mart says they “aren’t taking patients”; it still will happen if Wal-Mart makes it easier to BE a patient. Same thing with CVS: they are now starting to open up primary care practices within CVS locations.

What does this mean for primary care referral opportunities within your health system? It means we will start to see a significant shift if you don’t pay attention and/or partner with these organizations. Organizations need to start thinking critically about a partnership or “deal with” strategy to ensure that they can maintain their goals. At the end of the day, it just might all come down to experience: whoever gives a better, more convenient experience, may win in the end. 

Learn more about the patient journey in our latest ebook.

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