In the past few years, hospitals have put a much greater emphasis on treating patients as consumers. But the industry is still adjusting to giving people a greater say in their healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic has only complicated matters, as hospitals are dealing with more patients and needing to account for their choices. How can hospital administrators get the data to make the right decisions in this challenging time?
According to Pallavi Chitturi, deputy chair and professor in the Statistical Science Department at the Fox School of Business, understanding consumer choice begins with a method called “Choice-Based Conjoint” (CBC).
“CBC is a method used to understand consumer choice. This approach has been popular in psychology, marketing, tourism and other areas. More recently, we’re finding applications in the healthcare industry to understand how patients reveal their preferences,” says Chitturi.
This statistical method focuses on examining the choices and trade-offs that consumers make by determining what characteristics of a product or service the majority prefers.
“Very often, our choices involve trade-offs. For example, if your laptop breaks down and you have to purchase a new one, what attributes would you consider? Features like memory, the weight of a laptop, and battery life are what we call attributes,” says Chitturi. “Someone might choose a lightweight laptop even though it has a shorter battery life. That’s a trade-off.”
Trade-offs are also very prevalent in healthcare. Chitturi mentions there are many attributes such as location, cost, timeliness of results and availability of counseling that consumers take into account when choosing a hospital or clinic that works for them.
However, she believes it’s most crucial to get the survey design right when studying these consumer preferences.
Chitturi and her colleague Alexandra Carides, assistant professor in the Statistical Science Department, published “Experimental design issues in choice-based conjoint applied to patient choice in healthcare” in the Journal of Comparative Effectiveness Research describing these types of best practices.
“Our paper mainly looks at how to design CBC studies on consumer choice applications in healthcare. The idea is that these research practices can help you select the right design for your CBC study,” says Chitturi.
Chitturi says that designing a study with obvious choices wouldn’t be as valuable, because hospitals wouldn’t learn anything about their patients from the results. However, a well-designed study that examines patients’ trade-offs will show what the majority consider most important in their healthcare decisions.
“The ultimate goal of an applied study would be to answer the question, ‘How do patients make these trade-offs?’’’ says Chitturi. As hospital administrators decide whether to improve or create new services to cater to their patients, understanding patient choice is the first step.
This method of understanding consumer choice is fairly new to healthcare, though some hospitals and researchers are ahead of the trend. In the past, John Hopkins University hosted conferences on CBC to study patient preferences.
“Using choice-based conjoint in healthcare is definitely becoming more popular, but there is still a lot that is yet to be understood as it’s relatively new in this industry,” says Chitturi.
That is where Chitturi’s CBC models and design can help. With the application of her best practices research, hospitals can more accurately gather information to predict patient choices.
“This can really improve the healthcare industry because patients, as consumers, can be empowered to promote patient-centered care and improve outcomes. The healthcare industry is slowly beginning to engage and empower patients,” says Chitturi. “Moving forward, it will become more and more important to understand patients’ choices and involve them in the decision-making process so they have a choice in services offered to them.”
With this research from Chitturi and Carides dedicated to survey design and choice, the healthcare industry will have more tools to understand and implement choice analysis. Hopefully, hospitals will continue to improve how they engage their patients, ask what they want rather than just what they need, and treat them as true consumers of healthcare services.