The future of Healthcare is now. What this means to businesses and consumers.

If you can push past the political ping-pong surrounding Obamacare (a tall order, admittedly), one of its most intriguing outcomes is the opportunity – and crisis – it creates for health insurance brands.

The five-second background: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act makes competitively priced health insurance available to individual customers via state-based insurance exchanges. So in effect, the Act forces insurers to evolve from B2B service providers into consumer-focused marketing organizations. Some fun facts:

  • Approximately 24 million customers will purchase coverage through the exchanges in the first five years alone, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.
  • Some sources also argue that 50% or more of U.S. employers may look at dropping or severely curtailing sponsored insurance benefits.[1]

For insurers, it’s a voyage into uncharted waters. But for those in the industry who care about customer experience, it’s a once-a-generation opportunity to re-define how consumers perceive their brands via innovative and inspiring digital experiences. The challenge will be to accomplish this within the context of a constrained and conservative industry that often seems to care little about its brand impressions.

Evolve or…Perish?

To navigate this entirely new health care landscape, millions of potential new customers will turn to digital tools – sites, apps, comparison engines, online communities, social media and more. For many, the already-challenging process of choosing a health plan will be a dizzying, potentially deeply unsatisfying experience:

  • unfamiliar – and largely undifferentiated – brand names to sort through;
  • processes rivaling tax filings in terms of usability and clarity;
  • complex offerings and confusing messaging.

The insurers who thrive will excel at satisfying and even delighting consumers with digital services that are relevant, social and emotionally engaging.[2] That those services will be mobile almost goes without saying.

Traditional marketing campaigns and informational websites won’t cut it. In the new paradigm, every digital experience will need to pull its weight – drawing leads, converting customers, and (just as important) inspiring loyalty. User-friendly experiences that connect with core needs and meet technological expectations will be key to drawing consumers into an ongoing relationship based on trust, rather than obligation to an employer-based arrangement. Some players simply won’t make it.

Raising the Bar is Critical

Here’s an understatement: the healthcare industry in general, and insurers in particular, aren’t noted for customer-friendly service and compelling (or even useful) design. It’s a rough ride through much of the industry’s digital offerings: EHR interfaces seem time-warped from the pre-Windows/Mac era. Frustrating self-service applications act as roadblocks to checking a claim status. Unintelligible menus bully the poor guy who’s just trying to download a form. It’s a landscape that choice-dazzled consumers aren’t likely to tolerate for long.

Consumers now demand web-based services that consistently deliver real value. And concerns over privacy are no excuse – many industries dealing in sensitive transactions already offer flexible, secure and highly mobile solutions. Health insurance companies will have to evolve and adapt their digital offerings – and make no mistake, evolution is likely to mean complete reinvention – just to meet expectations.

For some, getting to parity will be the goal. But in a rapidly evolving landscape, constant innovation is the new imperative. We’re convinced that customer experience professionals in healthcare would do well to start implementing best practices from other industries. Start by clearly identifying your users’ needs, develop a compelling value proposition for your concept, and validate the design before implementing new functionality. Some of the industry players have already begun to do just that.[3]

Getting Out Ahead of the Pack

With new regulations looming, healthcare insurers can’t afford (literally) to stand pat. Innovation may not be easy, especially when it disrupts existing relationships, but the good news is that it’s seldom impossible.

The Chicago-based Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) already understood that helping plan members connect with high-quality providers is a critical path to engaging current and potential customers. BCBSA also knew that a solution required more than building a new medical directory aggregator (they had already done that). No, creating a best-in-class tool to leapfrog the competition required a reinvented, bottom-up provider search experience.

In a future post, we’ll detail how our user-centered approach completely re-framed the provider search experience, helping BCBSA roll out a new integrated, deeply engaging tool for its 100 million members.

[1] “How US health care reform will affect employee benefits,” McKinsey Quarterly; June, 2011

[2] “The Future Of Online Customer Experience,” Forrester Reports; January 28, 2010

[3] “Case Study: Aetna Drives Consumer Engagement Through Its Member Cost Estimator Tool,” Forrester Reports; July 26, 2011

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