This is an evolving article, it was last modified Dec 7, 2021

The digital healthcare customer experience is transforming due to regulatory challenges and an increased focus on the consumer. As the industry moves from a fee-for-service model to a value-based care model, incumbent health companies, along with new competitors, have improved digital health assets. They’ve transformed online and mobile interfaces to include intuitive navigations, personalized features and fresh designs. And they’ve raised consumers’ digital experience expectations and engagement.

As new challenges to patient treatment arise during the COVID-19 crisis, telehealth services and related resources—such as symptom checkers and test facility finders—are increasingly popular. They are also ultimately necessary to keep the existing U.S. healthcare infrastructure afloat. Since the start of the outbreak, health systems and health plans have uniformly highlighted important information about the virus, Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and disease prevention on their website. This includes alerts, notifications, dedicated COVID-19 pages and resource centers. Many firms–like Anthem, Kaiser Permanente and Oscar–include risk assessment surveys. These tools, available to both members and non-members, determine an individual’s COVID-19 risk-level. The majority of resources and information that insurers provide appear on public site pages to help as many people as possible receive care.

Anthem COVID-19 health assessment
Anthem Public Site COVID-19 Symptom Assessment

Rapidly expanded telehealth capabilities help firms address the urgent need for safer care delivery. As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the federal government also facilitated telehealth expansion by funding the FCC’s new COVID-19 Telehealth Program.

The Office for Civil Rights announced it will exercise its enforcement discretion by waiving potential HIPAA violation penalties against healthcare providers that serve patients through platforms like Facetime or Skype during the COVID-19 pandemic. This allows individuals without HIPAA-compliant devices still to receive the care they need during this pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis is highlighting telehealth alternatives to traditional care. But also–perhaps more impactfully–it is encouraging insurers and providers to improve the existing infrastructure for these services as fast as possible.

Previously having seen an average of 80 virtual patients daily, firms like University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) are now seeing nearly 1,500 patients per day. Many, like Houston Methodist and NYU Langone, are treating telehealth visits similarly to in-person visits. Firms are also waiving related out-of-pocket costs for members. Notably, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association–which includes 36 independent companies–expanded its COVID-19-specific telehealth coverage by waiving cost-sharing for in-network telehealth providers.

Telehealth companies are also helping meet essential virtual care needs. Doctor on Demand is emailing consumers with COVID-19 preventative and educational information. The firm is also offering virtual visit discount codes and digital coronavirus risk assessments that provide more personalized preventative measures. Startups like online medical appointment booking company Zocdoc are also contributing with expanded telehealth capabilities to their platforms.

The healthcare industry continues to adjust its care capacity to meet growing demands. Insurers and providers will need to rely on and invest in digital resources and telehealth services beyond the scope imaginable prior to 2020. These new methods of care will likely grow and remain popular long after the crisis, due to ease of use and familiarity.

Consumer satisfaction with the digital healthcare customer experience drops, and the industry tries to shift to a consumer-centric, preventive care approach

Corporate Insight continuously monitors the healthcare digital experience. We conducts surveys that allow us to stay up to date with consumer sentiment as well as identify the tools and features customers desire most. We further supplement our research through surveys that assess importance, usage and knowledge base across the industry.

Our November 2019 Healthcare Survey polled over 1,700 consumers. We conducted similar surveys in 2018 and 2016, allowing us to track industry trends and consumer mindsets. Within the 2019 survey results, easy navigation, intuitive tools and visually attractive clear website designs were among the most important features for consumers. However, survey results also showed that 68% of respondents in 2019 were very or extremely satisfied with their health insurer member website—a drop from 76% in 2018. The need for improvements in the digital experiences rises with increased customer online engagement.

Website design and usability is the third most important website component for members

How important to you is each of the following health insurer website elements?

Digital healthcare customer experience website design and usability

Payers and providers are responding to increased demand for convenient, retail-like experiences by transforming their platforms and offerings to cater to growing consumerism. They’re treating the consumer as the center of the universe. They are shifting care from a responsive approach—treating consumers after they are already sick—to a preventive approach of care before consumers become ill.

But shifting to increased digital health engagement presents an array of regulatory issues on top of those already present in the industry. Electronic data and HIPAA breaches pose an imminent threat due to the extreme sensitivity of health information.

As emerging technologies mature and digital customer experience improves, the healthcare industry will become more vulnerable to health data breaches. In response, states are developing their own individual laws to combat data breaches. In our research, we have also seen a flurry of health companies introduce consumer-facing technologies, such as cost and quality transparency tools and blockchain-secure electronic health records, to improve the digital healthcare customer experience.

Engaged members now expect well-designed, functional health management capabilities online

Other industries, like banking and retail, offer consumers simple, transparent and easy-to-use capabilities. As such, healthcare organizations must meet user expectations for high-quality website functionality. Users expect easily navigable digital experiences with simple health management capabilities. Online resources, tools, design and navigation are huge factors in the success of a health organization.

Corporate Insight’s Health Plan Monitor research service tracks the digital web and mobile user experiences offered by health insurers, health systems and digital health companies by analyzing developments made to their offerings. Our coverage includes firms like UnitedHealthcare, Kaiser Permanente, CVS/Caremark and MDLive. We track what is important to users, including online health management features like claims filing, appointment scheduling and payment methods, as well as cost estimator and locator tools.

Insurers are expanding interfaces to include more Medicare-specific resources and information

Continuing their shift toward the customer, health insurers are expanding Medicare Advantage plans to meet rising patient expectations. Indeed, enrollment in these plans has nearly doubled over the past decade, suggesting that the Medicare population is seeking more coverage and better care. Medicare Advantage plans—private plans similar to HMO or PPO plans—offer more services, including prescription drug, vision and dental benefits that traditional Medicare does not cover. Aetna, UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Humana and Kaiser Permanente are the largest Medicare Advantage health plans by number of covered lives, according to AHIP.

To address consumer-driven demand for a better digital experience, insurers are offering more comprehensive online Medicare interfaces. These range from dedicated Medicare sections providing general information–such as plan type explanations–to dedicated microsites, such as those offered by Aetna and Independence Blue Cross. Resources on these sites mirror those of traditional health insurance interfaces by offering Medicare plan information and general FAQs as well as quote tools, provider locators and drug cost estimators.

Corporate Insight’s Medicare Monitor research service tracks these Medicare microsites as well as other Medicare digital web user experiences offered by firms like UnitedHealthcare, and Emblem Health.

Our coverage group includes 25 firms. Although many firms are expanding their Medicare digital experience and offerings, we see significant room for improvement. Since navigating Medicare can be confusing due to its many types and regulations, and the Medicare target demographic may not be as tech-savvy as younger generations, providing easy-to-use capabilities and a simple, intuitive interface is imperative for insurers offering Medicare plans.

Online health management features like claims filing, appointment scheduling and payment methods are important to users
Percentage of respondents who consider health management aspects of sites “very important” or “extremely important” on a five-point scale

Online Health Management Features

More so than ever, users want seamless online experiences allowing them to perform health management tasks and find important information about their health plan, prescriptions and health record.

With higher member engagement, resources and tools become an extremely important aspect of healthcare member site offerings. They’re the driving force for members’ overall satisfaction with the organization. Specifically, most health plans have released health cost calculators to help demystify the costs of procedures. While the quality of these cost estimators varies, some are excellent resources for members interested in learning about and comparing cost and quality of services provided by local practitioners.

Our October 2019 report on the cost estimators on the member websites of leading health plans found that cost estimators do not tend to present the information most relevant to consumers. For instance, not all estimators show how much a procedure or treatment will cost during each stage of its execution and how much associated costs will be. Specifically, higher quality cost estimators provide members with an experience similar in nature to that of Yelp’s, with its customer reviews, and Amazon’s, with its price comparisons, detailed product descriptions, product reviews and filtering options.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, for example, employs low-cost indicators to alert users to their lowest-cost options based on their network and benefits. This helps members weigh the importance of cost versus distance or other elements of a provider. Ultimately, this kind of addition can drive traffic to providers offering a given service at the best cost to the member and the insurer. BCBS of Illinois highlights in a lightbox how much members can save with different providers, showing the best and next-best value options. Tailoring online health capabilities to function similarly to that of successful digital experiences like Amazon provides the seamless experience members not only desire but have come to expect.

Health insurance cost estimator from BCBS Illinois
BCBS of Illinois Member Site Cost Estimator

Healthcare organizations have already responded to the growing desire for simple, straightforward resources by tailoring tools to engage members and provide helpful information that creates a more transparent experience.

Digital healthcare customer experience expectations and usage are driving mobile innovation

As online engagement and expectations rise, mobile app usage increases as well. Unfortunately for most health insurers, their apps leave much to be desired. Customer expectations will only increase as users come to rely more heavily on emerging health services and innovations.

Comparing 2016 and 2019 surveys, the importance rating for insurer apps has remained consistent over the last three years. Three-quarters of respondents ranked health plan apps as very or extremely important to them. In addition, 63% of 2018 respondents indicated that they logged into their insurers’ apps within the last six months, which marks a 20-percentage-point increase in usage compared to our 2016 survey. Hospital or health system apps are even more widely used by patients, as 81% of respondents in our 2019 survey indicated that they have logged into their health system’s app in the last six months.

Healthcare organization app usage continues to climb

Within the last six months, have you signed in to your health insurance or health system account on the mobile app?

Digital healthcare customer experience mobile app usage

Users are going to apps more frequently, signaling that members are becoming more mobile, especially with the retiring population, which marked an 11-percentage-point increase in health plan member app usage since 2016.

Insurer app activity is expected to continue, provided organizations keep introducing mobile-friendly content and tools. The most important functionalities in member and patient app experiences include coverage details, health information, bill pay, prescription management, communication tools, design and usability. Access to easily digestible and well-presented information is important as well. Healthcare organizations need to provide competitive, value-based experiences within these apps to stand out and drive member satisfaction. Three major digital touchpoints that could keep consumers engaged and proactive in their own care include:

  • Technologies to measure activity by offering health improvement goals, harnessing community and offering rewards
  • Technologies to advance patient care through fostering more collaboration between members and insurers and members and healthcare professionals
  • In-app pharmacy capabilities to manage care with pharmacy locators, drug cost estimators and prescription management tools

The most important app functionalities include coverage details, health information, bill pay, prescription management, communication tools, design and usability

Percentage of respondents who consider the app features as “very important” or “extremely important” on a five-point-scale

Healthcare mobile app functionality

Health system and hospital patient portals are lagging with less innovation

Although many health systems and hospitals use cutting-edge medical innovation, they lack sufficient digital innovation in their patient portals. Patient portals enable healthcare organizations to provide support services to improve patient health and wellness as well as allow patients to access their own medical records and perform other capabilities like appointment scheduling or bill pay. Patient portals currently offer basic functionality but lack certain digital capabilities that would enhance patient experience and overall satisfaction. Our 2019 survey found that 51% of respondents accessed their health system’s patient portal between a few times a month and once a month.

A majority of respondents frequent health system and hospital patient portals

How often have you signed in to your hospital or health system’s patient portal within the last six months?

Health system patient portal usage

As digital healthcare customer engagement increases, the importance of patient portal design and functionality increases as well, especially as the push to improve efficiency in care and streamline patient-provider collaboration continues.

These new digital capabilities offer retail-like experiences, making patient portals more appealing to patients. In August 2019, we conducted user interviews on health system patient portals and learned that direct online scheduling capabilities for both site visitors and current patients are extremely important, as most people find making an appointment over the phone cumbersome and time-consuming. Providing digital capabilities that allow patients to perform tasks simply and easily helps draw in new patients. Cleveland Clinic, for example, is one of the only health system organizations in the coverage group to offer appointment scheduling, appointment requests, urgent care scheduling and e-visit scheduling on its patient portal.

Cleveland Patient Portal Appointment Scheduling Options
Cleveland Patient Portal Appointment Scheduling Options - Screenshot

Health system organizations are starting to incorporate more digital capabilities into their legacy patient portal infrastructures, such as self-servicing functions and virtual visits, in order to streamline the patient-provider relationship.

Another trend seen among organizations Corporate Insight tracks is the implementation of VR and AR technologies to assist with surgeries, manage pain and combat mental health issues in innovative ways. Health systems are also using these digital advancements to increase patient transparency through communication, which is a critical component of patient satisfaction and overall hospital experience.

Mobile healthcare app EASE—which stands for Electronic Access to Surgical Events—allows one-way communication from nurses and doctors to families by sending periodic text, video and photo updates of patients going through surgery. EASE is an example of how digital advancements are being used in health systems to increase patient transparency and engagement. However, while the healthcare industry continues to leverage technology to improve patient outcomes, our research has uncovered significant areas for improvement in the online patient experience.

By leveraging our competitive intelligence methodology, Corporate Insight’s research services identify organizations offering best-in-class digital experiences and provide actionable recommendations for improvement.

Telehealth can further transform healthcare delivery and the overall digital healthcare customer experience if users are made aware of virtual care options

In the ongoing search for affordable, high-quality care, telehealth is emerging as a powerful tool that can increase access to treatment. Virtual assistance caters to customer experience by providing personalized on-demand care that is convenient and simple. Mobile phones, tablets and laptop computers are all gateways for physicians and healthcare providers to connect with a wider scope of patients and members. They also remove transportation and geographical barriers through remote monitoring. This makes it easy for individuals to receive care without physically going to a hospital. Digital communication between patients and providers is becoming more frequent as many health plans, hospitals and health systems have partnered with companies like Teladoc, MDLIVE and Doctor on Demand to offer virtual provider visits and assistance for members.

These virtual and telehealth offerings accessible through patient portals, health plan member sites and mobile apps make the digital healthcare customer experience more cost-effective and convenient to users.

However, while users are relying on emerging technologies for health services, our 2019 Healthcare Survey showed only 7% and 26% of participants used a virtual health service with a healthcare professional through their health plan member site and health system patient portal, respectively. This shows a disconnect between the industry investment in the space and actual usage by patients. While they may be currently underutilized, video consultations have the potential to increase care efficiency for patients and providers. They reduce in-person visits, create more space in hospitals for serious and urgent medical needs and help address medical labor shortages by increasing manageable patient loads.

Although many healthcare organizations are investing in virtual care services, it has yet to be adopted into the mainstream digital healthcare customer experience. Users must be made aware of their virtual care options and engage in them for there to be significant change in the industry.

While virtual care services are gaining traction—and attempting to tackle some pressing issues such as access to care and high costs—the level of impact telehealth could have on the healthcare industry is still largely unknown.

As the expansion of telehealth services continues, the useful service could positively impact healthcare delivery in the future by increasing patient care efficiency and collaboration in an engaging and transparent way.

The future of digital healthcare innovation

In past years, digital health wellness trends such as rewards programs, health trackers and wearables were at the forefront of digital healthcare innovation. The focus has since shifted to new innovative areas like telehealth, pharma, patient data access and genomic sequencing.

Technological advancements have allowed digital innovation to surpass simply measuring activity to helping manage care and predicting future outcomes.

Organizations are now leveraging AI, VR and AR technologies to deliver consumer-centric care solutions that produce convenient, engaging experiences. Big Tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft entering the healthcare space is accelerating the consumer-centric approach to traditional healthcare processes and systems by democratizing health data and changing healthcare delivery.

Health insurers still promote digital health wellness and continue partnerships with companies like Welltok and Sharecare to offer members digital reward programs. But the next wave of innovation focuses on empowering members to use their health data and become more involved in healthcare decision-making. Particularly in areas like prescription services, consumers are actively involved in their health management through online pharmacy platforms to order and manage their medications. Many health insurers and health systems have responded to this trend by incorporating more prescription management services into their digital platforms as well as partnering with prescription benefit managers. Combining medical and pharmaceutical benefits under one roof could have the potential to lower costs and increase transparency, two major components users are looking for in their overall healthcare experience.

As the current landscape of the digital healthcare customer experience continues to change, the future of digital innovation is uncertain. However, as more technologies emerge and individuals continue to engage in digital healthcare experiences, more personalized on-demand care will likely arise. Corporate Insight continues to monitor the healthcare digital experience to provide competitive intelligence and customer experience analysis to the nation’s leading healthcare organizations through a combination of offerings.