Healthcare is regarded as an industry where high-quality technology and high-quality human touch can’t possibly be separated from each other, ever. Since long, this is considered essential in delivering better treatment outcomes – the core value most patients desire, and buy – directly or indirectly.
Why high-quality technology helps make treatment of various diseases increasingly more effective, is no-brainer. However, amid high decibel ‘digital’ buzz during Covid-19 pandemic, some may also wonder how does ‘high-touch’ help improve treatment outcomes? Against this new backdrop, I shall explore in today’s article: why high-touch is so important for most patients alongside high-tech, and the critical need of striking a right balance between high-tech and high-touch in most areas of healthcare delivery. Let me start with a brief recap of the same in the pharma industry perspective.
Balancing high-tech and high-touch in pharma – a brief recap:
In a similar context – against the contemporary market dynamics, I discussed about Pharma’s new and still evolving pathway for digital and F2F customer engagement on February 15, 2021. This is primarily because, today’s patient-centric marketing model has to be on Omnichannel platforms to deliver patient-expected value, effectively – and more.
In this mix, F2F customer engagement process is just one among several channels – but a critical brand demand generation tool, though – giving a feel of ‘high-touch’ – in-person interactions to many key customers. Many studies show, alongside acceptance of ‘high-tech’ digital channels, customer expectations for ‘high-touch’, by and large, continue to exist, even today. Thus, one of the key responsibilities of pharma marketers is to arrive at the optimal combination of in-person F2F engagement channel, and high-tech digital channels for remote engagement.
However, this isn’t the unique need of the new normal. On April 29, 2019, I wrote about the evolving new pathway is a hybrid business model. It is customer-centric and helps create a right blend of high-tech and high-touch approaches. Striking an optimal balance between the two is critical to successful business outcomes. This brings me to the point of the relevance of ‘high-touch’ in healthcare.
The relevance of ‘high touch’ in healthcare:
Since time immemorial, a strong bond of trust-based doctor-patient relationship has remained pivotal in the disease treatment process, across the world. This still exists regardless of the socio-economic status, and degree of patient literacy, including digital – particularly for moderate to severe ailments.
A recent article – ‘High-Touch Telemedicine’, published by CFHA on June 04, 2020, also highlighted, “Touch has been central to the physician-patient relationship for as long as there have been physicians. Patients allow their doctors to touch them in places and in ways that they would allow to no one else. The gentleness and the carefulness that doctors are trained to use on this touch is a bonding experience that supports healing. If this trust is violated, if a doctor is unduly forceful or disrespectful, this can be a cause for grievance and even litigation.”
The scientific pertinence of physicians’ high touch for patients:
This point was lucidly elaborated in the above paper. It said, the doctor’s comforting physical touch, and interactional touch, have impacts on the Neuroendocrinology of the patients involved. Thus, physicians’ high touch when used in a benevolent conversation, releases the neuropeptide oxytocin in the brains of both participants. This, among others, helps to improve recognition of emotions, increase mutual trust, so compliments and the recognition of a person’s efforts and successes.
Covid-19 propelled ‘high tech’ in healthcare to a new high sans ‘high touch’:
The Covid-19 pandemic, undoubtedly, propelled healthcare into a virtual world. It triggered the development of a plethora of ‘high tech’ innovations to deliver prompt healthcare to patients suffering from various ailments, even from remote locations. One such example is telehealth. Many healthcare providers, including the Government of India realized that leveraging the potential of ‘Telemedicine’ can effectively address the healthcare needs of a large population, across the world.
That said, I reckon, although, healthcare can’t survive without high tech. But, a high-tech-healthcare, like telemedicine, can’t totally replace high touch, at least, in the treatment process of several moderate to severe ailments.
The Best and the worst-case scenario for only high-tech healthcare:
As studies indicate, only high-technology based healthcare sans high-touch, in the best case scenario, would facilitate affordable access to treatment for more patients, bringing down administrative time and cost, in tandem. Which is why, when Covid-19 pandemic posed unique challenges to providing health care, India’s health policy makers revised the nation’s Telemedicine Practice Guidelines on March 25, 2020. They acknowledged in the manual, high-tech Telemedicine ‘increases timely accessto appropriate interventions, including faster access and access to services that may not otherwise be available’.
Whereas, in a worst-case scenario, only digital access to healthcare may create some barrier to direct physical examination of the patient by the doctor, and their interaction. This may impact patient emotion – so important in the disease treatment process. Thus, although high-tech is essential for the advancement of healthcare, but can’t totally replace a patient’s need for high touch care.
High tech is essential, but can’t replace high touch-based trust:
Several recent papers deliberated this point with umpteen evidences. One such paper was published in the Harvard Business Review on October 30, 2019. The article is titled, ‘AI Can Outperform Doctors. So Why Don’t Patients Trust It?
The research points out, ‘patients are reluctant to use health care provided by medical artificial intelligence, even when it outperforms human doctors. This is because, patients believe that their medical needs are unique and cannot be adequately addressed by algorithms. To realize the many advantages and cost savings that medical AI promises, care providers must find ways to overcome these misgivings.’
The study also found that when health care was provided by AI rather than by a human care provider, patients were less likely to utilize the service and wanted to pay less for it. They also preferred having a human provider perform the service even if that meant there would be a greater risk of an inaccurate diagnosis or a surgical complication.
Given a choice – ‘patients will always highly value and seek out human touch’:
This point was also deliberated in another study, published in the MedCity News on January 14, 2021. Acknowledging: ‘Effective, modern medicine cannot survive without technology,’ it brought to the fore an important finding: ‘Regardless of how intuitive the software – or how advanced the technology – patients will always highly value and seek out human touch’ because of several reasons. Some of which are as follows:
- Patients believe that their medical needs are unique and cannot be adequately addressed by algorithms. Patient experiences aren’t meant to be 100% digital. And despite the accuracy of computers, humans prefer to seek care from other human beings.
- Different patients have different emotional needs. Life-altering diagnoses and unforeseen outcomes are best delivered by a living, breathing, feeling individual who can fully understand and address these needs.
- Physical examinations by a doctor are more reassuring and restorative for patients.
The author concluded, high tech is absolutely necessary for the progress of health care, in general. However, in the foreseeable future, high touch would remain an instrumental part of patients’ healthcare experience.
I believe, one can even experience it as the Covid-19 safety restrictions will start easing, or even now – to some extent. Therefore, ‘healthcare professionals must find a way to blend the sophistication of technology with the power of touch in order to continue improving patient experiences, care, and outcomes’, the paper underscores.
Just as in the pharma business, a right-mix of high-tech and high-touch is also necessary in overall healthcare space, to deliver the best health outcomes to patients. After initial disruptions, a similar trend is emerging even in the new normal. No doubt, usage of high-tech digital platforms is here to stay, and further improve in the years ahead. But, digitalization alone in the healthcare space, should not be construed as something that can make high-touch totally irrelevant or redundant in a patient’s journey for disease treatment.
The mindset of mutual exclusiveness of high-tech and high-touch, if any, either during patient-treatment or in the customer engagement process needs a revisit. As it appears, it is neither desirable in customer engagement, nor in patient treatment processes – akin to one approach suits all. This is because, healthcare is very personal to patients – more than most other areas. A lot of individual feelings and emotions are involved in patients’ end-to-end journey for treatment, where only high tech-based solutions may not meet all patient expectations – sans high-touch of physicians, as I deliberated above.
Thus, effective integration of high-tech-healthcare with high-touch of physicians, nurses, and some technicians, is evolving as the right way to deliver patient expected values, for better health outcomes. From this perspective, alongside most other stakeholders, astute marketers are realizing that high-tech digitalization isn’t a panacea for effective pharma marketing. Delivering the best patient outcomes with the right high-tech-high-touch combo, is the name of the game.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.