Healthcare Analytics: Patient Engagement — What Can We Learn from Other Industries?

By Brad Sitler, MBA; and Graham Hughes, MD

There has been an intense and ironic debate surrounding the request to delay Stage 2 Meaningful Use or at least postpone the assessment of compliance. Instead of charging forward to engage patients in the digital space, much of the industry is looking for opportunities to further postpone the assessment of compliance.

Imagine any other industry, such as retail, hospitality, or travel, actively pushing to delay efforts that would engage consumers to deliver the best possible experience. That wouldn’t happen because those customer-centric industries prioritize the customer experience and don’t forgo revenue opportunities. To move forward, the healthcare market must embrace a mindset focused on better understanding of when, where, and how patients live their lives and anticipate and support their needs.

There is much to be learned from other industries’ relentless focus on understanding their customers not just while they visit their stores, hotels, or online sites. These businesses strive to make their products and services an integral part of their customers’ daily lives. Healthcare has a tremendous opportunity to do the same by engaging patients to take a more active role in their health. For the 131,385 minutes between the brief quarterly office visits for a patient with type II diabetes, how does the provider support, on a daily basis, patients in the management of their disease and overall well-being?

Industries study and learn from best practices, and we’re working to help our healthcare customers adopt the best practices of our customers in consumer-focused markets, such as banking, retail, and financial services.

Consumer Segmentation

Consumer segmentation is critical for meaningful and relevant patient engagement. The financial industry, as one example, leverages rich socio-economic and behavioral data to create consumer segmentation frameworks that drive the development of credit card offers, interest rates, timing of offers, etc. These offers are combined with messages such as “first-time card holder,” “new parents,” or “better management of your credit” as examples. The company is looking to drive a consumer to action, not unlike driving a patient to action. The segmentation framework, potentially developed via cluster analysis, enables the creation of rich, compelling offers and messaging that resonates with each consumer segment. If a message or offer does not resonate, it will not facilitate consumer or patient action.

For healthcare, leveraging rich socio-economic, behavioral, attitudinal, and readiness-to-change profile data will provide for rich segmentation frameworks to deliver compelling messages that resonate and elicit action.  

Digital Is King

The average person spends up to 50% of their day in front of a computer, television, or smartphone screen and sees more than 1,200 marketing messages per day. Like it or not, our healthcare messages and interventions are competing for mindshare. In the consumer package-goods industry, messages are delivered through multiple digital channels to create “surround sound” that is tailored to the target segment. This “surround sound” breaks through clutter, provides on-going reminders, and facilitates behavior change, which may include trying a new product, switching from a competitor’s product, and sharing a personal experience.

As patients spend more than half of each day in front of a screen, that is an ideal way to engage. A digital strategy includes the execution of meaningful, timely information that is on the right screen(s) for each patient and at what they view
as the optimal time. For example, video instruction and on-demand, live interaction could be  effective supports for new diabetes patients as they learn to self-inject.

“Lights Out” Engagement

Enabling patient engagement outside the clinical setting without the use of staff during the interaction creates a scalable patient support structure. EBay is an excellent example of this, with a rich online experience including the ability to have questions answered and an easy transaction process with the customers’ information previously stored. EBay sends automated emails to keep the consumer informed as to the status of an auction and continually prompts the winner via email to next steps in the process, including payment and providing seller feedback. This automation in turn creates a scalable operational support system.

With finite resources to support patients, healthcare needs to better leverage technology to enable patients in the management of their health. Leveraging clinicians for engagement outside the office is neither cost effective nor scalable. Scalable patient engagement could include a geo-initiated recorded voice message delivered as a patient drives past a pharmacy at which they have a prescription awaiting pick-up. Alternately, automated reminder SMS messages could be sent when a prescription is ready for pick-up, and then triggered again five days later and continuing until a patient retrieves the prescription with escalation to the prescribing clinician after a certain time period.

Resource Allocation

With limited resources, it’s critical to invest in engagement that is most beneficial to the population. Other industries understand their return on investment for the purposes of directing limited resources to those activities and consumers that deliver the greatest returns. A financial services company will send multiple waves of direct mail to the same segment of consumers, in some instances with the same message and offer, because they know the exact new customer conversion rate on each wave. This ability has been honed over time so that the company invests only to the level of a positive pre-defined ROI for a given tactic. The key learning is that there is a pre-defined investment that is planned for and measured each time to ensure continual positive ROI.

Optimal resource allocation is facilitated through a thorough analysis of the investment in patient engagement across multiple disease categories and patient segments to understand the overall impact in reducing the total cost of care.  In order for these analyses to be completed, a solid understanding of the cost of care for patients is required. Along those lines, SAS Episode Analytics provides insight to understanding the cost of care for patient episodes. Defining clinical costs at the patient level, measuring changes in outcomes from patient engagement, and tracking the associated engagement costs, will enable the forecasting of return on investment and future engagement.

It’s time to move to an “always on,” digitally enabled healthcare system that functions 24/7/365. Other industries have been doing it for years, so let’s take the opportunity to learn the lessons of other customer-centric markets, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. The data is there, the analytics are ready…let’s change the game.

Brad Sitler is a principal industry consultant for the SAS Center for Health Analytics and Insights, where his focus is on advancing innovation across payer, provider, and life sciences industries. Prior to joining SAS, Sitler worked as a consultant focused on relationship management in the biopharmaceutical industry, during which time he had his own company as well as worked for a leading database marketing service provider, Epsilon. He also worked for Johnson & Johnson Consumer Products Companies directing the implementation of new technologies and managing operations of the consumer affairs customer service teams. Sitler holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from The Pennsylvania State University and an MBA from Duke University, Fuqua School of Business. He may be contacted at

Graham Hughes serves as chief medical officer on the SAS Center for Health Analytics and Insights team. He joined SAS in 2011, bringing to the organization more than 20 years of experience in developing and delivering innovative healthcare information technology (IT) products and services. Prior to joining SAS, Hughes was vice president of product strategy and chief medical informatics officer at GE Healthcare IT, leading a customer-facing advanced technologies innovation team, as well as spearheading the annual strategic planning process. He was the primary physician leader driving GE’s knowledge platform strategy and associated products in collaboration with Intermountain Healthcare and Mayo Clinic. He may be contacted at