Even amid the chaos of COVID-19, healthcare accessibility stayed about the same, according to Accenture’s 2021 Healthcare Experience survey. But the adoption of digital tools and the empathy offered by healthcare providers may not be as far along as conventional wisdom suggests.

The annual survey tapped 1,800 Americans, focusing on the overall healthcare experience as well as narrower issues around affordability and trust. Here are four essential takeaways for medical marketers.

Access and affordability toe the status quo: The survey found that a little more than half of respondents didn’t experience a change in access to healthcare since the start of the pandemic. Twenty-six percent of respondents said access improved, while 20% reported it declined.

As for affordability, Accenture senior managing director and global health lead Rich Birhanzel said it is inextricably intertwined with access.

“Access is the broader dimension, but affordability is important as a part of that,” he explained. “We know that just having access to care isn’t enough.”

To that point, the report found that 23% of Americans would delay medical treatments or medications they need – and 17% would decline treatment entirely – due to affordability issues. In addition, 18% of people reported skipping an appointment with a medical provider due to the cost of care.

“This is not the ability to get an appointment; this is the ability to pay for an appointment,” Birhanzel noted. “And that dimension of this is slowing down the treatment that people need.” He added that 15% of respondents said they ration their prescriptions and 26% said they would use over-the-counter medicine “even when perhaps they would have a better outcome if they used the prescribed medicine.”

Health-tech lags: Not surprisingly, Accenture found that the use of virtual care surged during the pandemic: 32% of respondents reported receiving it, compared to the pre-pandemic sum of 7%. But even as virtual care usage has plateaued, fewer people have been using mobile devices and social media as part of their care mix.

Part of that may stem from a lack of trust in tech companies to maintain the sanctity of individuals’ health information.

“Even though folks are more isolated during the pandemic and are using virtual care the way they are, we’re not seeing the sustained adoption and growth that maybe we would all expect from those other digital channels,” Birhanzel explained. “That gives us some insight into experience and what those expectations are – and where we have room to grow as a healthcare system.”

Experiences still trend toward the negative: Even as providers strive to provide a better customer/patient experience, only one out of three people surveyed said they haven’t had a negative experience with an HCP. Birhanzel believes that people now expect health-adjacent organizations – hospitals, health insurers, tech companies and more – to connect with one another and, in so doing, provide the type of seamless experience offered by non-healthcare companies.

“People are increasingly noting that their healthcare experience is going to be across different venues and settings. They’ll engage with different organizations at times – with an app or a technology provider, or with a certain clinic for one situation and a different clinic for another,” Birhanzel said. “They expect connection and collaboration among those players.”

Empathy is in demand

Perhaps the report’s most important takeaway – for marketers and physicians alike – is the expectation among patients of emotional support from their providers. More than half of respondents said support and empathy, in the form of listening to and understanding a patient’s needs – was important.

“Patients want to receive emotional support even more than medical support when they’re engaging with a provider,” Birhanzel said. “And that really reinforces the point that this is a very personal experience for people. It’s important that the emotional side is addressed so that we have the whole experience covered, rather than just the medical or scientific side of it.”

When it comes to building trust, the report suggests two essential steps: Being transparent about how data is used to optimize outcomes and endeavoring to create more personal relationships.

“The more we create a feeling of ‘this organization knows me, they care about me, they’re thinking about the long journey with me and not just this particular experience,’ the more we build trust,” Birhanzel said. “Inevitably that’s about the tech providers deploy, the data they use and the training and awareness around the people who are interacting with patients. All of that can help focus on the person, and make the experience more humanizing.”