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In this blog post, Cleveland Clinic's Michelle Frietchen joins Vision Critical's Michael Janczak. Michelle's insight comes from running the Cleveland Clinic Patient Panel, which won Vision Critical's Global Insight Community of the Year Award in 2013.

When it comes to customer satisfaction and the handling of customer data, no industry sets a higher bar than the healthcare industry. Healthcare providers literally deal with matters of life and death, and the industry has to meet high regulatory and personal privacy expectations.

The healthcare industry is constantly changing and complex, and is one of the only imperfect markets in the United States due to unlimited externalities. As a result, it provides a great source of lessons about consumer insight to other industries. Successful patient communities, such as the Cleveland Clinic Patient Panel, demonstrate the value of listening to your customers.

Whether you're in healthcare, retail, or some other industry, here are five business lessons you can learn from patient communities:

Understand how to meet high customer expectations.

Delivering exceptional patient care not only requires the best staff and the latest technology - it also requires getting a sense of what patients expect. Thriving patient communities regularly conduct studies that explore how patient services can be improved. From urgent-care wait times to the factors that people consider when choosing primary, specialty or surgical care, online communities give organizations direct access to patients.If you'd like to learn satisfaction levels with your frontline staff, your referral process, and other aspects of your business, there's no better way of knowing for sure than by engaging directly with your current patients. Patient communities help organizations such as Cleveland Clinic move towards a more data-driven and patient-driven process.In the same way that communities enable data and patient-driven decisions at healthcare facilities, businesses both in and outside the healthcare industry should also tap into the voice of their customers. Doing so ensures that your business decisions exceed what your customers expect from you.

Market with sensitivity.

In the healthcare sector, marketers walk a fine line. Organizations need to market their services to remain profitable, but tactics need to be tasteful. That's why engaging patients in the process makes sense: customers can evaluate the effectiveness of marketing messages while helping ensure that what you're putting out there is tactful.In the past, Cleveland Clinic has done studies on patient's cause-marketing preferences and their awareness of various marketing programs. Its online community helps answer important marketing questions such as whether awards and certifications make a difference when choosing a healthcare provider. Studies on children-health topics have helped Cleveland Clinic implement marketing programs that are useful and effective.As Cleveland Clinic demonstrates, engaging customers can help shape effective and tasteful marketing messages in a business.

Keep up with technology.

Keeping healthcare customers happy means introducing new processes or technology to make their lives easier. In an online community, patients usually help in the ideation process of new product or service development. We found that patients are happy to give their two cents on new apps that we're thinking about (for example, appointment reminder apps) or changes to existing documents (such as their billing statements).All businesses should remember that just because something sounds good on paper doesn't mean it will work for your customers. Get your customers to help you evaluate and refine new concepts; after all, these initiatives are supposed to improve their lives and the way they access your products or services.

Test your communication venues.

When communicating with patients, it's important to be cognizant of their needs. You may think that you're communicating clearly, but your patients might disagree if you fail to put yourself in their shoes.In the past, Cleveland Clinic has tapped into its community to explore both offline and online communication methods. From our experience, people can help you keep tabs on emerging communication methods - including messaging on mobile - so you can be ahead of the curve. Similarly, testing patient materials has helped Cleveland Clinic gauge the effectiveness of established communication methods.An online community can even help evaluate your online presence: Your customers can help test your website and other online collateral, ensuring that these communication platforms remain useful and effectively delivering the information they need.

Enhance your relationship with your customers. 

Many healthcare providers are adopting a patient-first mentality. Just like Cleveland Clinic, more healthcare organizations are engaging patients today. But customer engagement changes constantly. The way you gather patient insights now may not be effective in the future.

That's why it helps to talk to an online community to get their satisfaction on the way you currently engage them and the topics that they want to be consulted about. One of the things Cleveland Clinic discovered is that patients want to be involved with more important decisions. Patients want a say on how to improve wait times, for example. With this type of information, Cleveland Clinic continues to create customer engagement studies that patients find compelling.

The bottom line for all organizations: While you might have an idea of how customer engagement should look like, there might be a disconnect with what people expect and what you're actually delivering. Talk to your customers to see how you can do a better job of gathering their feedback and insights while putting their input into use in actionable ways.

Learn more about online patient communities

The topics you can explore with a patient community are endless. This is also true for most online communities: from marketing to operations to HR, you can use your insight community to talk to stakeholders about topics that affect them. If you already have an insight community, we encourage you to try exploring these topics with your members as a starting point.

To learn more, read our previous post on online patient communities or listen to this Healthcare Success podcast.

About the authors:

  • Michelle Frietchen is Senior Manager of Market Research at Cleveland Clinic.
  • Michael Janczak is Director of Online Patient Community Development at Vision Critical.

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