Who ‘owns’ the healthcare consumer of the future?

How the ongoing M&A scramble and the frantic pace of digitalization of healthcare are reshaping traditional relationships between healthcare consumers and providers.

IT Healthcare - heartbeat EKG and stethoscope in a binary environment
Gerd Altmann (CC0)

CVS and Aetna are merging. Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, and Berkshire Hathaway are forming a joint venture aimed at reducing health care costs and improving outcomes. Cigna is acquiring Express Scripts. The proposed mergers promise a revolution that could fundamentally alter the current healthcare landscape and the relationships between providers and patients. With these giant corporations betting big on healthcare, a logical question to ask is: What’s behind it all?

The answer is simple: ownership of the healthcare consumer experience, and by extension, the consumer.

Digitalization and healthcare consumerism

In the past few years, Amazon has reshaped the relationship between consumers and marketers. It has forged itself into being the preferred destination for consumers seeking convenience. Now, imagine Amazon applying this power to the healthcare sector. The company already offers a wide range of the over-the-counter drugs in their health and wellness section. Going from there to selling prescription drugs is not a big step. However, that step could become a big leap in terms of the shift in consumer loyalties if consumers are provided the option to order their 90-day medication refill and have it delivered to their doorstep (maybe even by a drone).

Recognizing the threat, many health systems are taking measures to digitalize their relationships with consumers by focusing on something they have long neglected: convenience. Virtual visits and e-visits are now becoming commonplace. A young mother of three no longer has to bundle her kids into the car and drive an hour each way to her hospital for a routine follow-up that takes all of fifteen minutes in the physician's office. A senior citizen in a wheelchair on multiple chronic-care medications no longer needs to "check in" by getting physically to a physician's office. They can both do their visits through secure messaging, or if required, through a virtual real-time consultation.

The above is just one example of how digitalization could reshape relationships between consumers and providers.

Data, analytics, digital

Here is another scenario that is already starting to play out. Consider a patient with high blood pressure. Technology is enabling patient-generated health data (PGHD) from wearables and sensors that includes blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels, and medication adherence to be transmitted seamlessly into the patient’s electronic health record (EHR). The combined data is being analyzed for trends and insights and made available to everyone involved in that patient’s care, enabling care teams to manage the patient more effectively. The patient can still control who can see the information by following an e-consent process through an app right on the mobile device. If a patient opts to participate in clinical studies, that person can be matched automatically with relevant opportunities. Both the individual patient and the population improve their health outcomes as a result.

Data-driven advancements are arriving in the form of both precision medicine and healthcare consumerism. Advancements in precision medicine are expected as the relationship between data from wearables, sensors, social determinants and other emerging sources is better interpreted through advanced artificial intelligence (AI), and yielding better outcomes. We are in early stages of a new push toward patient-centered, consumer-directed care that is demonstrating strong growth potential.

What we are also starting to see is some redistribution of the in-person visits between traditional providers and emerging ones. As an example, CVS and Aetna are betting that consumers may prefer to visit one of their many walk-in clinics for minor conditions instead of waiting to schedule an appointment with their primary care physician in the hospital down the road. Urgent care is already shifting out of hospitals, and in many cases, going virtual altogether. The rise of companies such as Teladoc and Doctor-on-demand is clear evidence of this.

Bricks and mortar is not going away

None of this suggests that the traditional healthcare setting is fading into obscurity. Health systems, especially those with strong brands in their local and regional markets, have an unassailable lead today as trusted healthcare partners in their communities. Many of them are already making big investments in digitalization programs that will enable consumers to get the best of both worlds, namely a virtual experience for routine healthcare and urgent care needs, and an in-patient experience for acute care needs. For a high-quality patient journey, these two worlds must be tightly integrated. Only traditional hospitals can provide that truly integrated experience today.

The future of healthcare consumerism is not an either/or

If Big Data’s relationship to precision medicine has been on a more or less predictable trajectory, the explosive growth of healthcare consumerism has opened up options for healthcare consumers seeking convenience in addition to the quality of care. The healthcare leaders of tomorrow will ideally sit at the intersection of these two critical aspects of healthcare delivery. A reputation built on high-quality care alone will no longer be enough; neither will a reputation for slick user interfaces and transactional convenience.

A friend, who is also the CIO of a large health system, recently suffered a heart attack during a race. As he felt it coming on, he wisely checked himself into the medical tent from where he was rushed to a nearby hospital. A stent was put into his chest that saved his life. Imagine a scenario where with the help of real-time, advanced analytics and AI technologies, his imminent heart attack could have been predicted. Imagine, too, if he had not had access to one of the most experienced and qualified cardiologists in the country to attend to him during the emergency. Digitalization can ensure that the cardiologist's knowledge, wisdom, and experience are still accessible no matter the current physical location of the patient.

Ownership of the healthcare consumer experience requires a mixture of convenience and quality enabled by a robust data and analytics capability. No one sits precisely at that happy intersection today. However, the race is already underway to get there.

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