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Putting patients over profits: Who do consumers see as champions of the healthcare industry?

Harris Poll recently surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. adults ages 18+ to gauge consumers’ attitudes toward the healthcare industry. The results are somewhat disheartening.

“We are in the midst of a healthcare maelstrom,” said Wendy Salomon, vice president of reputation management and public affairs at Nielsen. “Consumers see no safe port, no place where their interests are truly protected—and that lack of consumer trust is reflected in the reputational risk we see across the U.S. healthcare landscape.”

Healthcare providers rank highest

Only nine percent of U.S. consumers believe pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies put patients over profits, while only 16 percent believe health insurance companies do, finds the study. Meanwhile, 36 percent of U.S. adults believe healthcare providers (such as doctors and nurses) put patients over profits, compared to hospitals (23%).

Additionally, the poll indicates that while most are neutral toward healthcare industries, more consumers rate health insurance (24%) and pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies (20%) with low reputations, compared to hospitals (6%), healthcare providers (doctors and nurses) (5%) and technology (2%). Fifty-eight percent rate the reputation of the technology industry as high, compared to healthcare providers (43%), hospitals (37%), pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies (20%), and health insurance companies (15%). 

Effects of reputation

“There are undeniable reputational risks for pharmaceutical and health insurance companies—more so than other parts of the healthcare ecosystem,” said Salomon. “Reputation matters to patients, care providers, investors, employees, and potential hires. Positive reputations can pave the way in times of crisis, in times of transition—and when it’s critical to have a seat at the policy-setting table.”

Consumer skepticism high across healthcare—but to varying degrees

According to the Harris Poll Reputation Equity and Risk Across the Healthcare Sector report, all healthcare stakeholders—hospitals, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, providers, and store pharmacists—suffer from consumer skepticism, but some experience it to a greater degree.

Nearly half of consumers say they think store pharmacists (49%) and healthcare providers (48%) offer high quality products and services, compared to hospitals (44%), pharmaceutical companies (31%), and health insurance companies (26%). Roughly half of consumers believe providers (51%) and hospitals (49%) make a positive difference in the country, compared to store pharmacists (39%), health insurance companies (26%) and pharmaceuticals (26%).

“There’s a lot healthcare can improve, but we tend to paint the entire industry with a broad brush,” said Salomon. “The EpiPen controversy, Affordable Care Act challenges, the fall of Theranos, and the basic hassles inherent in navigating one’s healthcare needs—all of these contribute to consumers’ perceptions of the reputation of the healthcare system overall, but we need to remember that healthcare players are not viewed equally. While at times the pharmaceutical industry seems an easy target for criticism, it is stunning to see the little credit it receives for making a positive difference. There are real opportunities for companies across the healthcare landscape to proactively share their stories and engage in reducing reputational risk.”

Consumers see providers and patients solving healthcare challenges

When asked where solutions to the healthcare industry’s challenges will come from, more than half of U.S consumers (55%) say healthcare providers, such as doctors or nurses. Nearly half (47%) see patients and consumers solving healthcare challenges, while 38 percent cite the government. Other responses include health insurance companies (34%), pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies (32%), hospitals (31%), academics, non-profits or think tanks (29%), technology companies (25%), and retail pharmacies (7%).

“Consumers believe they are a critical part of finding solutions to today’s healthcare problems, and as healthcare stakeholders look to involve consumers differently, it’s important that their input is being heard,” said Salomon. “Our research makes it quite clear that the marketplace is not optimistic about the private sector’s role in making things better. It will be important for companies to credibly engage in problem-solving.”

Ethics deemed important trait to solve healthcare challenges

The Harris Poll study finds that in order to be a part of the solution in addressing U.S. healthcare needs, consumers believe it is most important for organizations to demonstrate ethics (62% say very important) and quality (57%). Other critical factors include efficiency (51%), a long-term view versus a short-term gain (49%), collaboration (47%), flexibility (47%), and transparency (47%).

“As healthcare stakeholders explore new ventures that require permission to play in new arenas, it is important for them to understand the lens through which their reputation is evaluated,” said Salomon. “Right now, the marketplace seeks confirmation of ethical behavior before permission is granted, and it’s noteworthy that transparency and working collaboratively are also very important.

“Proactive reputation management continues to be key to unlocking business value, and as we look ahead it is plainly written that companies will need to refresh their old playbooks and engage in new ways.”

Looking ahead: Beyond doctors’ offices

The Harris Poll study finds that when it comes to confidence in care sites, millennials (27%) are more confident in pharmacy-based clinics, compared to Generation X (14%) and baby boomers (14%). Overall, one-third of consumers say they trust pharmacies as a point of care.

“As business models are squeezed and companies look to broaden their portfolios, industries are increasingly playing new roles in our dynamic healthcare environment,” said Salomon. “Whether it’s meeting consumers’ needs for extended hours and convenient locations through retail pharmacy clinics, or technology companies working with patients to help manage chronic disease, these evolving ways of delivering care have the potential for disruption. Millennials’ receptivity to non-traditional alternatives can be seen as one proof point that there will be more disruption ahead.”

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