Agile Engagement: What Health Companies Must Do to Promote Truly Shared Decision Making

Good performance in healthcare has historically been measured in terms of clinical outcomes: whether a patient’s clinical condition had been “fixed” by the medicines or procedures administered to them.

Now, the bar of expectations among “patient consumers” is rising. Patient satisfaction is increasingly defined by their experience of the care system and the quality of communication they receive, as much as the outcome of their care itself. If patient consumers are to be effectively informed about the benefits and risks of new goods, services, platforms and systems being offered in an increasingly competitive and democratized environment, healthcare providers, insurers, pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers need to become more agile in the way they communicate.

The notion of “shared decision making” is becoming the status quo rather than an aspiration. Patients are now talking to their physician or nurse armed with reams of information they have gathered about their condition from blog posts, health websites or specialist online patient decision aids—sometimes supported by real-time data on their vital functions provided by various wearable technology devices. This has fundamentally transformed how people view the doctor-patient relationship and empowered patients in a way that previously has not been possible.

While this evolution is undoubtedly a positive one, it has not tackled other problems. A recent study of nearly 6,000 consumers worldwide, undertaken by Salesforce, on their experiences with providers, insurers, and pharmaceutical and medical device companies saw half of all respondents saying that healthcare and life sciences industries are more focused on their own needs than those of patients. Respondents expressed a desire for more relevant and real-time communications with a greater emphasis on their experience as a consumer as key drivers for changing their perceptions of the healthcare sector.

As we find ourselves living in an ever-more interconnected world, it is of fundamental importance that we find the right balance between the push and the pull of information that patients both desire and require to make informed decisions about how, where and what healthcare they receive. This, in turn, demands an increasingly agile approach to health communications. Over the past decade, we have seen unprecedented advancements and proliferation of communications channels, and the health sector has been slow to adapt to the innovations. However, health is catching up fast and has learned important lessons from retailers and banks on how to bestow a rewarding transactional experience—driven by the Apples and Amazons of this world that have invested billions of dollars into health enterprises in recent years. But there is still a fundamental difference between selling clothes or consumer tech devices online and providing information about a therapeutic intervention that could transform or even save your life.

Doing this effectively requires trust—something of which the sector unfortunately has a deficit. After all, the science behind new medical developments can do harm as well as good and more often than not, it is when things go wrong that people sit up, take notice and make fundamental decisions on who delivers their care.

Health companies wishing to improve their communication with patient consumers should begin by embracing the notion of “population accountability,” a growing theory in health academia. This is no longer a choice but a necessity at a time when we see the democratization of healthcare through new digital channels and telemedicine, along with growing consumer activism that judges a company on its behavior and impact on wider societal interactions.

So, what is the way forward for health companies in this era of intense communications change and challenges? It was Bill Gates who said the key question for any organization in the digital age is to ask about the function of the human being. With healthcare becoming increasingly automated and technologically advanced, perhaps the focus for communicators in the sector should be on how to authentically convey empathy. Doing this effectively will allow health companies to talk about the enormous good they do in the world, as well as improving the experience of those they ultimately serve: the patients.