The consumerization of healthcare: the good, the bad, the baffling

As consumers start to drive their healthcare experience, concerns about healthcare spending savvy and information overload come to light.
By Laura Lovett
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Getting to a doctor’s office for a diagnosis can take days if not weeks — but getting a Google "diagnosis" takes seconds. Accessing information, both accurate and inaccurate, is easy today, opening new doors for consumers of healthcare. 

“We are in a world where consumers have a lot of information and we need to give them a system to figure out how do we use that information appropriately and how does it fit into managing their health,” Jennifer Sargent, chief revenue officer at Vera Whole Health, said at HIMSS19's Consumerization of Health Symposium yesterday.

This trend, mixed with the fact that patients are increasingly expected to take on more of the cost burden with high deductible health plans and more expensive copays, is putting the patient — or the consumer — in the driver's seat for their healthcare.

While this gradual change is already having an impact on the industry, it may not be the fix that some are hoping for, according to speakers at the Symposioum.

Show me the money

As patients become more actively engaged in making their healthcare decisions, health spending habits are also becoming more important. 

“Health is our most valuable asset and healthcare expenses are some of the most significant expenses that many of us will face in our lifetime. Yet as consumers of healthcare we are really uninformed about what we are buying,” Sunita Desai, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine, said at HIMSS on Thursday. 

However, providing consumers with tools that could help them make better financial decisions doesn’t always lead to the desired outcome. 

Desai pointed to a study she conducted, where researchers gave consumers a digital price transparency tools. They found that only 12 percent of participants who received the tool used it within the first 15 months. 

“Even though most Americans say they want more information about about prices and quality, in healthcare when it is provided to them it gets used very little,” Desai said. 

But money does appear to be a factor in whether or not a consumer is getting care in a timely fashion. A new study from JP Morgan Chase Institute found consumers are delaying out-of-pocket health spending until they have an influx of cash. Their study indicated that consumers increase their out-of-pocket healthcare spending by 60 percent the week after getting a tax refund. This could suggest that people are putting off needed care, Chex Yu, a research associate at JP Morgan Chase Institute, said at HIMSS. 

Making those health decisions can be difficult and complicated. Perhaps more so than other industries, healthcare can be convoluted and difficult to navigate. It’s a fragmented system and digitally managing that system can mean interacting with a dozen or so platform, leading even the most organized of consumers with app overload. 

“When healthcare stakeholders adopted digital and mobile, recognizing that it was very quickly becoming the only way to reach healthcare consumers, especially the Medicare population, they created an experience for individuals that looks like this: they have portals, passwords and log-ins for every doctor, hospital, lab, radiologist every healthcare carrier,” Kristen Valdes, CEO of b.well, said. “And we are living in a world where there are half a billion digital health applications living on the US cloud. It is impossible to manage health or engage in health because no one has that much room on their smartphone. To make matters worse, over 80 percent of healthcare decisions in our country are made by women. This means that we have this scenario in chaos for everyone we care for.”

Valdes’ platform b.well aims to help that consumer avoid overload. The platform links up a consumer’s health records, financial information, wearable data and more. It also gamifies the user experience so clients can earn points and rewards. 

Giving people what they want 

While the system may be confusing, the move towards patient as consumer could also mean the system becomes more personalized and human. 

Figuring out what is right for the consumer often means going beyond just personalizing for health needs but also for lifestyle needs, said Sargent. When developing new technologies she suggested starting focus groups to ask consumers about lifestyle questions such as “What was your last big purchase?”

“How do we take these personas and use it in a way that can engage it more for them?” she said. 

That could mean giving people push notifications that are relevant for them, instead of blanket ones for all users.

While technology may facilitate easier and more personalized healthcare for the consumer, that doesn’t necessarily mean taking the human caregiver out of the equation. 

“We are using technology to bring back the doctor-patient relationship,” Jessica Gelzer, senior director of strategic growth at Heal, a platform that enables doctor house visits. “The idea of consuming makes it sound one and done and that isn’t necessarily what it should be.”

She said that while the app enables an easier consumer experience, it also gives the personal touch of providing a human at the other end. It also does away with traditional waiting rooms. 

Whether it is making healthcare more convenient or more personalized, the move towards consumerization is already disrupting the industry. However, both the patient and provider space are still working out exactly what this will look like. 

“We have to design around how we make someone feel, not what we want,” Tim Pantello, managing director at PwC US, said at HIMSS19.