— New approaches need to recognize patients' wants and needs
by Michael D. Cabana, MD, MPH, and Leesh Menard-Livingston July 21, 2020
In 1985, the very first Blockbuster store opened in Dallas -- a new, modern videotape rental business with an expansive selection of
video titles and computerized check-out. It was an immediate success. Demand quickly grew, customers were eager and willing to travel to the Blockbuster store, investors jumped in and three more stores opened after only one year. Blockbuster became the leading video tape rental chain with more than 9,000 stores around the world.
One component of Blockbuster's financial model was the late fees it charged to customers who did not return a video tape to the store in time. These fees accounted for up to 16% of its revenue. In 1997, Reed Hastings was one of the customers affected by these fees. After one late rental, he was charged a hefty $40 late fee. His frustration inspired him to help create a company that would have no late charges. This new company also had the audacious idea to send DVDs straight to the customer's home for a flat monthly fee. The company that Reed Hastings co-founded was Netflix.
Over time, Netflix changed and adapted with new technology and shifting consumer preferences. It moved on from mailing DVDs to using a streaming platform. It developed an algorithm to help make personalized video recommendations to Netflix users. It started producing its own video content. Over time, the company planted itself firmly within many homes and routines. Conversely, Blockbuster adapted to new platforms too slowly and too late. After its peak in 2004, Blockbuster started losing market share and relevance. Today, there is only one Blockbuster store left, a curious tourist attraction in Bend, Oregon.
Markets and industries change all the time. Distinguishing these important changes from temporary fads is essential. History has many examples of companies and organizations that did not sense important changes, did not change their approach, and as a result, ended up obsolete and irrelevant. A similar shift is happening today in healthcare, but there is more at stake than a late fee. Like Netflix, the healthcare industry needs to shift and adapt to consumer preferences.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immediate impact on the health of our country and has also indelibly changed how patients interact with the healthcare system. Hospitals and providers around the country have had to quickly develop new strategies to connect with patients – to comply with social distancing guidelines, in an effort to slow down the spread of the virus. Consistent communication and accessibility is vital, especially given the disturbing trends in decreased preventive care visits and delayed emergency care. One solution is telehealth.
During this pandemic, we have seen that remote patient monitoring is valuable for patients with a wide variety of needs: certainly, those quarantined with coronavirus, but for healthy patients too – children in need of regularly scheduled well-child visits and adults who need routine care. Many patients have experienced telehealth for the first time and many have positive impressions, with nearly three quarters of patients who had a recent telehealth visit describing it as good or very good, according to a recent survey.
Even after the COVID-19 pandemic settles, these "temporary" approaches will permanently change patient attitudes towards technology and force healthcare providers to reexamine their approach to care. Telehealth will remain a convenient option and, in some cases, a necessary way to receive care. Embedding telehealth into standard practice of care enables providers to expand the access to people who otherwise might forgo care, and to people who may face barriers getting to a clinic, for example patients with inflexible job schedules or limited transportation.
Patients and providers are not the only people recognizing the benefits; government officials are too. While reimbursement rules were temporarily expanded to include telehealth, some states, such as Colorado and Idaho, are making COVID-19 telehealth expansions permanent.
There are many parallels to borrow from the Blockbuster example. As healthcare providers, we cannot be complacent and stick with old business models because they are what we are used to. We cannot wait for people to come to us. We cannot ignore these changing times and consumers' changing preferences. In fact, if we adapt and provide care in ways that patients prefer, we could improve health outcomes.
The healthcare institutions that will grow and be successful during this time are those who are more like Netflix. Instead of waiting for patients to decide to seek healthcare when it may be too late (e.g., just like a Blockbuster "late fee"), we will actively reach out and remind our patients about the importance of timely healthcare services. Instead of ignoring changes in patient preferences and new technology, we will adapt quickly to new platforms for healthcare visits. Instead of waiting for patients to feel comfortable to return to a healthcare facility, we will show patients what our healthcare system is doing to ensure patient safety and protection from COVID-19. Most importantly, instead of being complacent, we will accept and develop new ways of providing care.
There was once a time that we thought that getting in a car, driving to a strip mall, and walking through aisles with thousands of video tapes was the only option to watch a movie at home. Now, many of us can get thousands of titles on our televisions, computers, and phones through several movie streaming platforms. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare systems to quickly adapt to new constraints; however, it may really be an opportunity to develop new models of care, to engage with our patients, and to make healthcare more accessible. As healthcare providers, we need to make the choice to be more like Netflix, and less like Blockbuster.
Michael D. Cabana, MD, MPH, is physician-in-chief at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore and chair of Albert Einstein College of Medicine's pediatrics department, where Leesh Menard-Livingston is a research associate.