No matter how it’s stated – the goalposts have moved, the paradigm has shifted, or the planets have realigned – the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled an increase in healthcare consumerism. Hospitals need to adapt to this new reality to compete. Recent data from Accenture indicates just how profound an impact the pandemic has had on patient behavior – from adoption of digital devices, telemedicine, and turning to retail health clinics for their care needs.

New Care Delivery Models Gained Traction

Before COVID-19, digital tools (such as apps, devices, and wearables) to manage health had declined from 48% in 2018 to 35% in early 2020. However, the fear of infection immediately altered the landscape as patients in mass rejected in-person, onsite care. Instead, they shifted to other care delivery models, such as telehealth.

For example, Amwell – a company that connects patients with doctors – reported a 2,000% increase in telemedicine appointments nationwide from January to March 2020. Another company, Teledoc reported a rise of 50% in one week at the start of the pandemic. And Novant Health went from about 200 telemedicine health appointments a week before the pandemic to 12,000+ weekly appointments.

Retail Health Clinics Expand Market Reach

In a June 2020 Harvard Business Review article, senior executives – including two M.D.s and an R.N. – noted that leaders must see the pandemic as an opportunity to transform their systems.

“Many in our industry feel a natural desire to get back to how things were…We should not return to business as usual. We need to instead focus on creating a new normal…During the pandemic, Geisinger has witnessed an acceleration of strategies that had been previously slow to gain acceptance. For example, before Covid-19, we averaged about 40 telehealth visits per day across our system. As with many hospital systems, various factors, including patient and provider reluctance and reimbursement constraints, inhibited wide adoption. Now, because of the crisis, we are averaging 4,000 to 5,000 telehealth visits daily (40% of which are video visits).” 

Meanwhile, retail health clinics and pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, are leveraging data they have collected from millions of people who have signed up for COVID-19 vaccinations in their marketing efforts to provide health services directly to consumers. Both Walgreens and CVS already offer live and virtual physician visits. A J.D. Power study found that nearly half of retail pharmacy customers are already using their pharmacy’s retail health clinics for their medical needs. Further, the study concluded that when a retail pharmacy customer uses two or more health and wellness services, overall customer satisfaction goes up. In addition, customer spending doubles.

The Implication for Health Systems

Hospitals don’t want to surrender referral patterns – especially self-referral – to emerging, nontraditional providers, such as retail health clinics. The good news for hospitals is that the patient/physician relationship is still the dominant driver of care. But the above data strongly indicates that patients are willing to try new care delivery models. Patients are getting restless –and during the pandemic, they have evolved into digitally-connected consumers of care.

For health systems, this means digital transformation should be a top priority. This change will be critical to compete against the growing popularity of virtual health and retail health clinics. However, digital transformation has to be done right. Patient-centric digital technologies that keep patients informed, engaged and satisfied while powering a financially strong healthcare organization will be essential for success.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy. But the silver lining is that it’s also an opportunity for health systems to connect more meaningfully with their patients.


Meet the Author: John W. Mitchell’s job titles have ranged from sailor in the U.S. Navy (broadcast-journalist aboard an aircraft carrier) to COO and CEO for several hospitals. In 2009, HealthLeaders Media named John and his senior executive team the Top Leadership Team in Healthcare for turning around a 90-bed, regional Washington hospital. In 2012, he started his own business, SnowPack Public Relations. John is widely published as a freelance reporter and writer in the hospital, healthcare, and medical sectors. More recently, his projects include writing content on behalf of Patientco. John is also the author of the novel Medical Necessity (four stars on Amazon), and he is a commercially successful landscape and wildlife photographer.