The Covid-19 health crisis gave birth to at least dozens if not hundreds of startups offering specific telemedicine services. From ad hoc urgent care and behavioral health to specialty services addressing men’s health or Covid testing: the breadth of services runs the gamut of medicine.

The challenge that all of these startups are now facing is that it is an increasingly crowded marketplace. And the big guns in telehealth (i.e., Teladoc and Amwell), health insurance backed telehealth services, and now even Amazon care are all formidable competitors.

So how can a small telemedicine practice increase demand for its telemedicine services?

Catering to the Modern Healthcare Consumer

While the creation of the “modern healthcare consumer” has been long in the making, even with the acceleration by Covid-19 it’s still going to take a few years before consumers are savvy enough to perform more qualified searches for the right online care. I for one anticipate the emergence of marketplace platforms that help match healthcare consumers with a specific need to the virtual physicians that can address the clinical needs best.

In order to understand which strategies to increase demand for your telemedicine service, it is first important to understand how modern healthcare consumers make decisions.

First off, for most consumers, it is an emotional, at times irrational decision making process. Virtually any health problem creates in us a sense of vulnerability and some form of anxiety befalls even the calmest of people. And with that vulnerability comes the need for trust which is directly and indirectly the driver for all strategies we’ll be discussing today.

Thus the fundamental rule is to establish trust immediately and to “back it up” continuously as the modern healthcare consumer gets closer to scheduling the appointment or to jump in to an ad hoc, on demand call.

So what does trust look like? While credentials and an education history (as touted by sites like ZocDoc or Vitals) are somewhat important, they are not really important. First off, most healthcare consumers expect physicians to have gone to medical school and obtained a degree. Secondly, most consumers are not qualified to evaluate the quality of the education by the name of the institution alone.

Designing for Trust Building

Trust is actually a combination of impressions and the significance placed on each of the factors varies from person to person.

First off there is relatedness which can be initiated with a professional headshot (professional, with a smile, please) to turn that unknown clinician into a real person. Even better are situational shots (in the office or exam room) or videos (a brief 15 second-welcome is all you need).

Secondly, healthcare consumers pay attention to the consumer experience: Is the design fresh and clean? Are the steps clear? Is the information written in a way I can understand? Is there somewhere or someone I can ask for help? Do they care about me?

It’s absolutely crucial that the first 90 seconds of the healthcare consumer’s interactions with your website and processes are flawless, smooth and even enjoyable. As the saying goes: You only have one chance to make a first impression.

Thirdly, real testimonials from previous patients are valuable, especially if they are similar to the healthcare consumer – same age, gender, race or same location, same profession. And don’t be tempted to “salt the tip jar” by writing fake reviews or use fake photos, as people can easily smell a ruse from miles away.

Finally, if you’re expecting payment up front for payment in full or co-pays, assurances about refunds or the ability for brand new patients to schedule appointments without paying in full all lower the trust barrier.

Nichify: Can you help the unique me?

Building on the trust elements outlined above, a surefire way to increase demand is to nichify your offering. As they say in marketing and business: “the riches are in the niches” and healthcare is no difference.

To treat your UTI, would you sign up for a virtual visit with a physician that advertises herself as a “family physician with over 20 years of experience” or one that touts to “successfully treat over 20 UTIs every week”? The more specific you can make your service offering (which with online advertising can be easily done).

Another element of “nichifying” your service is to design your practice around a certain patient population. A subscription-based virtual men’s health service targets 30-60 year old males with their unique health problems. Another client of mine focuses on the LGBTQ community in rural areas and smaller cities. And a third client offers comprehensive general and specialty services for women’s health.

While focusing on a narrow market may seem limiting, it actually greatly increases your likelihood of seeing an actual return on investment, since you are very clearly (in a trust-building way) can demonstrate that you are the perfect fit for that patient with that problem which you are so good at solving.

Choose your friends wisely

Building a virtual clinic from scratch initially may seem easy – a webcam and a Zoom account and, voilá, I can be Dr. Telemedicine. But the overall experience includes finding patients, scheduling them, registering them, taking them through an intake process, collecting their background information, cross-referencing them to any EHR records they may have, collecting copay or up-front payment, etc.

Thus many startups, especially those led by clinicians vs. technologists, jumped on board with common off-the-shelf solutions — many of them who added telehealth functionality themselves in response to the Covid-19 health crisis, thus being quite inexperienced.

Two of my clients had to find out the hard way that the solution they initially selected did not meet their needs and expectations and had to abandon their initial choice. Besides, many of these solution vendors were so overwhelmed by the demand in 2020, that they could not keep up with adequate customer support. And just as many were making it up as they went, barely staying a few steps ahead of their customers.

Thus, selecting your solutions partner for scheduling, patient communication, video visits, billing, etc. is a business mission critical decision that should be made based on the in-depth understanding of the needs and requirements the telehealth service has to create the desired experience for patients and clinicians alike.

A Conscious Approach for Sustainable Growth in Demand

So, here they are: 4 strategies to increase demand for your telehealth service.

  1. Design Your Telehealth Service experience for the needs of the Modern Healthcare Consumer
  2. Make the whole experience about earning the patient’s trust. Evaluate the patient experience from that point of view.
  3. Nichify your service to focus on a specific population with which your messaging and expertise will resonate.
  4. Choose your technology and solution provider partners wisely. The better you understand your needs and requirements

What other strategies have you employed to increase demand? I can already think of two (patient retention and patient referrals) and may cover your ideas in a future article.

Let me know your thoughts!

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Christian Milaster and his team optimize Telehealth Services for health systems and physician practices. Christian is the Founder and President of Ingenium Digital Health Advisors where he and his expert consortium partner with healthcare leaders to enable the delivery of extraordinary care.

Contact Christian by phone or text at 657-464-3648, via email, or video chat.