The Healthcare Consumer Experience: Potholes, Popsicles, and Moments That Matter

It’s spring in New England, which means our collective thoughts have turned to pollen, the return of baseball, and potholes. Lots and lots of potholes.

For the uninitiated, potholes form when water seeps into asphalt or concrete, freezes, and expands. Even in a mild winter, the battered roads that emerge after the thaw are a nuisance. Public works departments spend many spring days filling holes and patching cracks. It’s an inconvenience, sure, but most of us prefer delays and detours to flat tires, busted rims, or broken axles.

The annual pothole-filling ritual presents cities and towns with a classic dilemma, though. Pour resources (and asphalt) into routine maintenance at the expense of larger but equally necessary upgrades, or emphasize grandiose infrastructure improvements as potholes only get bigger? (One cannot help but remember Springfield’s infatuation with Lyle Lanley’s monorail proposal in that classic episode of The Simpsons: “But Main Street’s all cracked and broken.” “Forget it, Mom, the mob has spoken.”)

The pothole dilemma comes to mind when Dan Heath discusses what he learned when writing his most recent book, The Power of Moments. Dan, a senior fellow at Duke University, co-wrote the book (and three others) with his brother Chip, a professor at Stanford University; Dan also spoke at this year’s Healthcare and IT Marketing Conference.

Heath emphasizes that moments are messages. Basically, people remember the little things. The No. 2 hotel in Los Angeles, according to Yelp, is The Magic Castle. How does an otherwise ordinary hotel beat the Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons, the Waldorf Astoria, and countless Beverly Hills boutiques? Free snacks, free laundry, child-sized bathrobes, a magician performing at breakfast, and a “popsicle hotline.”

I don’t know about you, but a well-coiffed butler delivering me a popsicle on a silver platter while I sat by the pool in the Southern California sun is something I’d never forget.

The little things are moments…

The challenge, of course, is that we often lose sight of the little things.

Now, it’s not that we fail to focus on the little things. In fact, we can easily get bogged down by them. I’m getting married in August, and between the Trello board to-do list, the guest list spreadsheet, and the schedule for The Day laid out in 5-minute increments…well, let’s just say I’m happy to be spending the rest of my life with a project manager.  

Rather, it’s that we pass up opportunities to highlight the moments that these little things represent. The distant relatives are more than Row 87; they are a joyful hug, an awkward dance, a photobomb, or some combination of all three. The welcome speech from my future father-in-law is more than a time slot on the schedule between cocktails and dinner; it’s a chance to laugh, celebrate, and hear an embarrassing childhood story or two.

Along with planting mental images of potholes and The Simpsons, Heath reminded me of the Cleveland Clinic’s video about empathy, which I first saw at a conference a few years ago. Warning: You’ll need tissues.

…so remember the moments that matter

This video immediately came to mind because I realized that we’re especially prone to missing the moments that matter in healthcare. After all, it’s a big industry with big unmet needs, big opportunities, big breakthroughs, big successes, and big failures. Even when we zoom in, we tend to think in macro terms: The key benefits of a new product, the number of patients a new building can accommodate, the long-term implications of a new treatment, and so on.

But healthcare, at its core, is highly personal. It’s full of moments that matter – some as short as a fraction of a second – that define how we experience care and approach our own health and wellness.

Yes, empirical evidence matters in healthcare, too. No entity will make even a minor decision without demanding proof points – and rightfully so, amid internal and external pressure to cut costs, improve outcomes, and make the care experience better for everyone.

However, the moments that matter are what stick with us. Our audiences – whether they’re consumers, clinical professionals, administrators, or executives – connect to these moments. They remember them years later after countless diagrams, bullet lists, and spreadsheets are quickly forgotten.

When it comes to health systems, we believe that no one in the organization is better poised to drive the consumer experience than the marketer. It’s a trend Chris Bevolo calls “Owning the Experience” in his book, Joe Public III: The End of Hospital Marketing (want a free copy? Email and we’ll hook you up). You can hear Chris and friend-of-the-firm Matt Gove (Chief Consumer Officer, Piedmont Healthcare) discuss the trend and how to build a team around experience in our webinar on the topic.

It’s our job as marketers, strategists, and storytellers to help healthcare capture these moments that matter. It’s our job to deliver that popsicle on a platter, fix that pothole, and turn that detailed wedding itinerary into a series of moments that no one will ever forget.

April 26, 2019
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