Health plans step up to deliver reliable, cost-effective communications

June 1, 2005

Health plans step up to deliver effective, reliable, cost-effective communications

In the quest to simplify healthcare communications, there’s one challenge that never seems to go away-how to reach hundreds of thousands of health plan members with news their life-saving drug is being recalled, for example. Fortunately, in today’s instant-everything information age, there are many viable electronic options.

Contacting each health plan member individually to alert them of news is another effective method. As an instant solution, rapid-fire health plan call centers with live or recorded messages to health plan members do, in fact, work. Sometimes, however, this method of communication lacks consideration for language or cultural barriers, and/or the nation’s health illiterate population.

Reactive communications-responding to health plan calls as a part of the basic communication process-is something health plans need on a daily basis, especially how to react in the throes of urgent health or medical news. As a price consideration, however, health plans are now accustom to spending as much as $6 per call to have staff field incoming member calls.

And there is always the U.S. Postal System, although deemed by many as the most reliable, often too slow for the fast-paced healthcare environment.

Overall, health plan executives now estimate at least 75 different reasons to contact health plan members on an otherwise normal business day. Recent research predicts 73% of healthcare executives have plans to communicate more with their patient and member populations in 2005 than they did in 2004.

This otherwise commonly accepted operational health plan challenge, however, is now being  exacerbated by two recent trends: rapidly evolving technology and consumer-directed healthcare.

A new consumer focus has resulted in more active, increasingly assertive health plan members who not only want more health plan information regarding quality and costs, but will spend more of their own personal time getting the information they need. Asking their health plan about generic substitutions instead of accepted the branded option is one example of new customer service requests health plan call centers now increasingly face.

When evaluating this process, industry communication expert Stan Nowak, and president and CEO of Silverlink Communications, Burlington, Mass., reminds health plans to look beyond the process itself, and consider the end result.

“It’s not enough just to look at the expected success rate or the program cost,” Nowak says. “Even sophisticated models like cost per success and ROI can’t accurately determine which vehicle will provide the biggest bang for your buck. Decision makers have to take into account costs and returns-all the while keeping an eye on the actual dollars they’re going to earn or save. Having a super low program cost or a sky high ROI percentage doesn’t mean anything if you’re not making real money from the program.”

Careful consideration of each modality is one option, but only as part of the issues being addressed.

“Traditional methods of communication either have low success rates [paper mailings, e-mail], low adoption [Web portals], or are too expensive [live call centers]. It makes sense that there's a level of frustration among healthcare executives,” Nowak says. “Clearly this represents a compounding problem, but some healthcare companies are finding new methods of communicating with their member patient populations in a more effective and cost effective way.”

 “It’s not surprising that only 39% of executives are satisfied with what they've had available in the past,” he says. Value mapping can be used to quantify the effectiveness of a communications method. “When a company takes the time to understand the true value of a member communication, it's in a better position to choose the right vehicle to get the job done.”

For example, consider the drug recall communication process. Postal mail allows for a low program cost.

“However, when you factor in the high importance of the program, the low-efficacy rate and slow deployment rate that mail produces, you'll find that it has a very low net success value,” Nowak continues. “In situations like this one, many healthcare companies today are choosing automated outbound call programs. With greater speed to deployment and a much higher success rate than mail, automated call programs produce a high net success value even at a slightly higher program cost.”

In this rapid evolving environment, costs and return on investment is just one option in health plan communication. Assessing and evaluating the communication path itself, however, will enhance effective health plan communications.

Aileen Kantor is a public relations and communications consultant based in Bethesda, Md. She frequently writes about healthcare administration, finance trends and e-health initiatives.