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Will Healthcare and Retail Converge or Compete as Patients Demand More Omnichannel Services?

Rikki Jennings (BSN, RN, CPN), Chief Nursing Informatics Officer, Zebra Technologies

The sudden arrival of COVID-19 accelerated many changes to healthcare. Yet, the widespread consumerization of healthcare may have been the most unexpected. There were indications in early 2020 that hybrid care models would become necessary to supporting patients throughout the pandemic. However, I think many considered “hybrid” a mix of virtual and in-person care. An omnichannel model contained within – and controlled by – traditional healthcare systems to facilitate telehealth and remote patient monitoring.

Then retailers started offering new clinical services in stores and extending them to their digital channels, and consumers started taking notice – with many showing preference for this converged retail and healthcare experience. Some valued the convenience, while others appreciated the potential cost savings opportunity thanks to retailers’ coupons, discount codes and other incentives. The stickiness of these retail-delivered health and wellness offerings in turn incentivized traditional healthcare system leaders to make drastic changes – to accept and adopt the “retailization” of healthcare as the way of the future.

But it’s clear that many executives with leading healthcare systems are still trying to figure out how to respond to this shift in patient expectations and rise in retail competition. They know they must provide “all care, everywhere,” but they aren’t sure of the best approach.

Should they try to own the patient relationship 100% by “insourcing” more services, ultimately becoming a one-stop-shop for healthcare so patients aren’t compelled to go elsewhere? Or should they expand patient access to healthcare by pushing certain services downstream to retailers or other independent, yet affiliated, community partners?

It’s Not Easy to Give Patients Everything They Want 

If traditional healthcare systems try to be all things to all patients, they may have to acquire practices to so they can steer patients to “in-house” specialists versus referring them out. They may also need to transform their campuses into community centers and offer more holistic wellness experiences, such as fitness, cooking and gardening classes – a feat that could require a complete tear down and rebuild, walls, technology and all.

No matter what, healthcare providers will most certainly need to remodel current services, expectations, and patient experiences both online and at physical locations to remain competitive with retailers and retain patient loyalty. Just as important, evolving into a “one-stop-shop” will require fundamental staffing, process, and technology changes to ensure all patients have equitable access to quality, personalized care. Decision-makers must consider how they can serve both insured and uninsured patients – which may require a new economic model – as well as patients within and outside local communities – which has a real estate variable.

Any one of these things could be disruptive if not properly managed, and all will require a significant resource commitment. Is the time and financial investment worth it? More importantly, is this new hybrid model sustainable in house? That’s a question healthcare system leaders will have to answer before they can decide whether there is value in partnering with retailers in some capacity.

They must also consider the risks versus rewards of embracing a decentralized care model, especially as retailers start expanding their clinical offerings. For example, will they lose control over the patient experience – and revenue opportunities – by outsourcing some care components to third parties? Or will the affiliation with retailers and others offering acute and non-acute care services earn them greater brand recognition and customer loyalty in the long run? Is it okay to tell patients to go to a drug store for vaccinations or a minute clinic for annual screenings but direct them into a hospital or clinic for more urgent or specialized care?

With more consumers now shopping around for healthcare services, and many ultimately seeking care where they shop for groceries, clothes and other items, some may find it riskier to limit access to a single healthcare system – or facilities that may be a further drive or a more expensive co-pay.

In addition, healthcare leaders must understand the impact of the home health market on their business models. I’m not just talking about in-home care provided by licensed clinicians, either. A DIY mindset may drive many consumers to take control of their health in non-traditional ways. The use of digital health monitors is on the rise, and we’re already seeing more people conduct at-home lab testing to self-diagnose issues, often without the guidance of a doctor or nurse. With virtual medical consults just a click away via e-commerce platforms, traditional healthcare systems could also lose patients – and revenue – to “doctors on demand” if they can’t find ways to offer patients similar access to clinicians when and where they need it. This of course could lead to subpar patient experiences as the continuity of care could be lost, especially if disparate care providers can’t access the single source of truth about a patient’s medical history: the electronic health record (EHR).

Ultimately, I believe we’re going to see healthcare executives look to retail – and vice versa – to create a cross-vertical omnichannel care model that puts the patients’ needs and desires first. But unless everyone commits to prioritizing clinicians’ needs and desires, it’s going to be hard to staff these services across these different platforms and facilities. That, in turn, will make it difficult to deliver on the promise of quality, personalized, affordable, and convenient care that built the business case for the “retailization” of healthcare in the first place. If patients can’t access care when they need it, where they want it, because staff can’t keep up with demand, then is a “care anywhere” model really benefitting patients? Or is it ultimately exacerbating the many problems it was intended to solve?

Clinicians’ Influence Over Healthcare Leaders’ Decisions May Be the Strongest of All

Two-thirds of clinicians who participated in Zebra’s latest Healthcare Vision Study confirmed they’re fatigued, burned out, and overextended during their shifts. If you ask them to see more patients or manage omnichannel care without doing something to simplify both responsibilities, they may quit. More importantly, they may not be inclined to take a job elsewhere – whether that’s a retail clinic or even a remote telehealth job – if they feel it’s going to be more of the same.

One-third of U.S. registered nurses (RNs) said in a recent McKinsey survey that they intend to leave their current direct patient care roles. What’s worse is that only 29% of these RNs expect to move into a similar role with another employer. Over two-thirds may stay in the workforce, but in a non-direct patient-care role, while 20% say they’ll likely leave the nursing workforce completely. Those more apt to leave the profession “placed outsize importance on manageable workloads, while those more likely to stay placed outsize importance on doing meaningful work, having caring and trusting teammates, having a sense of belonging, and feeling engaged by their work.”

My takeaway?

If we want the omnichannel healthcare model to work – for traditional healthcare systems, retailers, or the patients we’re collectively trying to serve – it’s critical to mirror the omnichannel retail model in terms of technology-powered workforce augmentation and workflow automation. We must use technology to unburden the delivery of care.

Retailers’ Best Practices Can Become Our Own

Retailers had to accelerate technology implementations and scale utilization early in the pandemic to ensure associates could execute traditional in-store operations alongside new e-commerce services. They understand how to optimize labor by automating workflows. They’re also astute at using prescriptive task management and workforce scheduling software to ensure the right person is at the right place at the right time with the right item or taking the right action. Healthcare providers must emulate this approach to workforce and workflow management as they move to a “care anywhere” model if we want to meet demand no matter the current labor capacity. But they must do so using hardware, software and wireless technologies designed specifically for healthcare’s strict privacy, security and safety requirements.

Patient appointments, diagnostics, transports, transfers, and treatments will need to be well orchestrated, and telehealth and remote patient monitoring will need to be managed alongside on-site patient appointments and monitoring. Executing such a diverse healthcare model with precision requires dynamic, real-time communication and information sharing between geographically dispersed care team members and non-clinical staff, as well as a certain level of automation. That requires very tailored clinical mobility solutions, real-time location systems, secure healthcare information databases, and efficient barcode labeling tools that are proven to support positive patient identification, inventory management and a “single source of truth” about a patient’s history.

Siloed, disconnected systems will disrupt the continuity of care and create friction as the patient moves from one provider to the next. It will also frustrate staff if it takes too much effort to deliver quality patient care, possibly driving them to quit.

So, let’s work together – as clinicians, administrators, IT professionals and informaticists – to optimize technology solutions, business systems, processes and even physical structures. Let’s find a way to deliver care anywhere in a “unified” – albeit decentralized – omnichannel healthcare model so we can give both patients and clinicians the experiences they deserve in a sustainable way.