Healthcare consumerism is here – or is it really?

There is no doubt that we have entered the era of healthcare consumerism. What does consumerism look like and what could hold it back from reaching maturity anytime soon?

man in suit touching virtual screen with health icon
Credit: Shutterstock

I happened to be one of the lucky people who got to go to Nashville this past week. No, I wasn’t there to attend the CMA awards, but to attend another invitation-only event put together by eMids, a healthcare technology company that had organized an exclusive gathering of healthcare leaders across the country. The theme of the event was what healthcare consumerism was going to look like in 2020.

The setting was as unique as it was ironic. As the key note speaker, Bill Carpenter, Chairman and CEO of Lifepoint Health, pointed out, Nashville is known for two things – healthcare and music. In music, consumers have high expectations and provide feedback almost instantaneously. They buy your record or they don’t. They come to your show, and if they like it they come back - if not they don’t. In sharp contrast, healthcare consumers have not only come to expect poor service, they almost always come back to the same hospital for care. The healthcare system didn’t really care.

And that was the backdrop for the rest of the discussions.

Consumerism is here, and here is what it looks like

Karen Lynch, President of Aetna , provided some insight into the emerging face of the healthcare consumer. For one, the patient’s interaction with the healthcare system is changing from merely being episodic to more of an ongoing communication, 24 x 7.  The focus is also changing from being merely transactional to more “emotion-based” and “meaningful interactions,” with high expectations around quality of experience.

With the ongoing shift to high deductible health plans, consumers are forced to shop around and make informed choices about where and how they are going to receive healthcare and from whom. All this has generated a compelling need for the healthcare system to build trust. A recent series of articles in the New Yorker provided a scathing indictment of healthcare’s “relationship problems.” In the triad of patient, provider and insurer there is a strong partnership between patient and provider but a general mistrust/confrontation in the remaining two relationships.

The demographic makeup of the healthcare consumer will matter more than ever now. The senior citizen on Medicare has very different expectations than the millennial consumer. Healthcare companies have to recognize these differences and “market” themselves appropriately to consumers.

The role of technology and data

In the new world of healthcare consumerism, technology and data analytics will be center-stage in determining the efficacy of patient engagement. Understanding healthcare consumers will require healthcare companies to have access to comprehensive information about their medical and non-medical data, including non-traditional data such as from social media and wearables. At the other end of the spectrum, consumers will expect enhanced engagement levels from their healthcare providers.

This will require existing healthcare companies to invest in digital technology to reach consumers anytime and anywhere through their devices of choice, while enabling caregivers through clinical data integration to have real-time access to information on their mobile devices. This is an area where several nimble startups, such as Oscar Health in New York, are stealing a march on traditional healthcare companies by designing and building platforms with vastly superior user interfaces. However, traditional healthcare companies have a treasure trove of data that give them a significant advantage over startups in truly understanding the healthcare consumer. Regardless of which way it falls, the healthcare consumer will eventually win.

So, is healthcare consumerism really here?

There is no doubt that we have entered the era of healthcare consumerism. However, it is in early stages, with the average healthcare consumer still unaware of the changes in the environment and the increasing range of choices available. While data analytics is being widely adopted by healthcare companies, issues such as interoperability remain formidable challenges to overcome, as are restrictions related to HIPAA that make it difficult to share data. The use of newer forms of data, such as from wearables and social media, is still in very early stages, with no clear precedents and guidelines to follow. The issue of lack of trust remains a significant barrier as well, given the decades-long adversarial relationships among all participants.  

For the era of healthcare consumerism to take hold, many of these foundational challenges will need to addressed, and quickly. Having said that, the consumer revolution seems to be here, and the evolution of the healthcare system is under way. As someone said at the event, evolution is rarely linear and so we may find ourselves in full-blown healthcare consumerism sooner than we think. Maybe even sooner than 2020.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

To comment on this article and other CIO content, visit us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
Download the CIO Nov/Dec 2016 Digital Magazine
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.