TECHNOLOGY: Customer service on health plan web sites–Now I’m mad! (with new UPDATE)

I tend not to let my personal feelings come out in this blog (as I have a couple of others for that) but I find myself pretty grumpy when I read the following passage in Today in E-HealthNews.

    Health-plan Web sites fail to provide adequate content when compared with the "high-quality" content users find at retail and media sites, finds Forrester Research’s Consumer Technographics Q3 North America Benchmark Study. According to the study, retail and media Web sites get overall satisfaction levels of 92% and 86%, respectively. But HMO Web sites receive an overall satisfaction level of only 47%, says Forrester. Even if health plans provide reasonable-quality content on their sites, according to the survey, members say they can’t find it. The study reports that 61% of health-plan Web site visitors say that the site’s navigation structures fail to meet their needs..

You may not know that I spent 2 years working for i-Beacon a company that sold web CRM software to health plans.  The software personalized and organized the presentation of a health plan site to the members based on their health conditions and their medications, as well as automatically extracting information about those conditions from the health plan’s claims system.  We argued that if the health plan installed the system, the plan would save money by having fewer people use their call centers because those members would find the information personalized to them on the web site. What does the report say about that?

    Forrester also finds that seven out of 10 consumers are so unimpressed by the customer-service capabilities of health-plan Web sites that most of the time they use the phone instead

Now I wouldn’t really mind about that fact that only 2 customers bought our product, if health plans as a whole had been buying and installing similar types of software. (Well, I would have minded but I’d have understood)! Instead, as I wrote in this article last year about my e-health experiences, almost all of them did nothing.  The few that have done something in this arena have not in general tried to integrate or personalize the information that they are presenting to their members, which has led to the poor consumer feedback that Forrester reports.

The problem is that despite all the guff about consumer-directed health care, the average health plan sells its products to HR people at big companies who are much more concerned about keeping costs down than the user experience of their members.  This view is so ingrained that appalling customer service from health plans has been totally accepted for ever.  So if the big accounts don’t care, then there’s no real incentive for health plans to make the effort and spend the money to improve.  Whereas in retail or media, if the individual consumer is unhappy they vote with their feet, their mouse and their dollars. Which is yet another reason why employer-based health insurance is a bad idea.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants to buy an excellent health CRM product going relatively cheap, let me know!

UPDATE: Via Tim Oren’s Due Diligence comes news from Jupiter (Forrester’s big rival) that too much personalization actually discourages web site visitors, and that attempts to figure out someone’s needs and wants from limited information is counterproductive. The report says:

    "Given flexible, usable navigation and search, Web site visitors will be more satisfied with their experiences and will find fewer barriers to the profitable behavior sought by site operators," according to the report published Tuesday. "In fact, good navigation can replace personalization in most cases."

So maybe the two companies disagree on their research findings, but perhaps health care web sites have neither personalization nor usable navigation.

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