Viewpoint

What Women’s Health Wants in Your Market


Zachary Hafner
Advisory Board

In recent years, consumer focus has become the hot topic in health care. At the headline level, health care organizations with the ability to segment the market and home in on preferences of key groups can effectively capture outsized growth.

Zachary Hafner

Zachary Hafner

Beneath the headlines, there is an implication that this growth can be accomplished for minimal costs, as if segment preferences all relate to small-ball things like best time of day to communicate or whether to tweet or pay for a print ad in the newspaper. But what happens when these wants and needs are expensive and capital intensive? Nowhere is this tension more evident than in the highly competitive area of women’s services.

Women are a key focus segment for health care organizations because of both the medical services they utilize as individuals and the influence they have on the health care of others. In one survey, 59% of women and 94% of working moms reported making or heavily influencing health care decisions for their entire families.

Investing in women’s services

It is no surprise then that many health care organizations are making major investments to attract women as a priority consumer group. For example, NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center developed the Mothers Center, an all-in-one center of excellence that serves as a national model for care of medically and surgically complex pregnant women. Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago wraps their comprehensive range of women’s services in hotel-like amenities such as valet parking, on-demand dining and movies, and in-room spouse accommodations. The price tag: more than half a billion dollars.

Consumer focus may not be cheap, but it is important. In the examples above, these organizations did not make reckless bets. They did their homework, understood their customer market, and carefully placed their chips where they saw the best odds of winning. In doing so, they also made decisions about where not to play; no organization can afford to make bets like these on all services for all customers. And while this may seem obvious, for traditional health care players it represents a significant change in thinking, in part because they have historically thought about their markets geographically rather than in terms of the population segments being served.

So is it this focus on consumer segments and preferences just a fad? All indications are that it is not and that we are just at the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way health care is organized and delivered. There are two big reasons for the change: the rise of consumerism and the intensifying cost to compete.

Health care consumerism is on the rise. Motivated by increased out-of-pocket expenses and empowered by a proliferation of information transparency, consumers are, more than ever, shopping for various aspects of their health care: evaluating health plan benefit designs, researching provider service offerings, reading reviews, comparing value propositions. What choice do health care organizations on the other side of the buyer–seller line have but to respond by crafting appealing offerings wrapped in consumer-friendly amenities? Competitive responses vary. The key factor is whether there are credible alternatives for consumers in the market.

On the competitive front, it is becoming increasingly clear that the biggest threats to traditional health care players aren’t similarly positioned players. The threats are coming from out in left field. Major disruption is underway, fueled by Wall Street-backed niche innovators and mega-mergers involving strange bedfellows (think CVS and Aetna), with the promise of more to come as Amazon, Apple, Google, and others continue to contemplate their entry strategies into health care.

Playing to win in this new environment absolutely begins with having clarity on who your target customers are, understanding what they want, and designing offerings and experiences to exceed expectations. For consumers—which more often than not means women—this should translate to appealing options refined by competitive forces.

For today’s health care organizations, there is a small window of opportunity to get focused and think differently. The stakes are high, the costs are significant, and there will be casualties along the way. But for the winners, the future looks very bright.

Zachary Hafner leads the Advisory Board’s strategy consulting practice.

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