Patients as Health Consumers

As a health consumer, it would be good to see a move towards funding models that reward health outcomes as well as occasions of service.  But, regardless of whether we see those changes in 2 years or 20 years, the expectations of increasingly digitally-savvy health consumers will be a driver of choice, accessibility and quality, which in turn will drive the adoption of new digitally-enabled models of care.

 

After a busy period of speaking, writing and innovating (to be announced), I’m finally back to the blog…

In recent weeks I’ve been to a number of health conferences where I’ve heard many people using the phrase ‘health consumers’.  Patients, health providers and software vendors are all starting to speak in this way.  And I like the fact that they are.

But as so often happens when we use a new phrase, I think many people haven’t fully understood its meaning or far reaching implications.  In the same way that many people are using ‘digital health’ simply (and incorrectly) to replace ‘eHealth”, others think that ‘health consumers’ is just a modern way to refer to ‘patients’.

Let me clear up some of that confusion.

 

Consumerism is about choice

To me, a patient is somebody who is currently actively engaged with the health system.  Somebody with a diagnosed condition that is under treatment or care.

In my view, all patients are health consumers.  Health consumers can be, but are not necessarily patients.

A health consumer is somebody who is either engaged in current use of preventative or wellness solutions, making financial decisions about future potential care, or is currently a patient.

So let’s think about what it means to be a consumer.

A consumer is a person who purchases goods and services.  A person who has expectations and exercises choice.  And when a service consistently fails to live up to those expectations, consumers are prepared to act, and to take their business elsewhere.

In my parents’ generation, the doctor was always right.  Having a doctor was rightly considered a privilege, and it was very rare that patients would question his or her decisions.  It was almost unknown for people to move between doctors.

However, over the last generation, patients have begun to behave like consumers of healthcare.  Many of you reading this will have had the experience of moving doctors because you haven’t been happy with the service that you’ve had.  In some instances, this is about accessibility to a service (i.e. the ability to get an appointment in a timely manner). In others, this is about perceived (or actual) quality or price.

Patients are no longer the captive audience that they once were.

 

Digital natives have digital expectations

In addition to exercising choice, a growing proportion of health consumers are digital natives.  People who are tech savvy.  Consumers who don’t just tolerate, but increasingly expect digital services in healthcare.

The excuse from health providers that “the government doesn’t pay us to support digital technology” doesn’t wash with a generation whose first question is often “is there an app for that?”.

The coming together of digital expectations with health consumers who are increasingly out of pocket for healthcare will act as a lever for change.  Regardless of funding models, we will see health providers, particularly in the primary care sector, realise that offering digital services to patients is a competitive advantage.  And since the patient is no longer a captive audience, health providers will be able to use digital services to entice patients and load up their practices with greater numbers of patients than ever before, using the efficiencies that digital technologies can bring – i.e. the ability to monitor and risk stratify patients remotely without having to periodically see patients for no good clinical reason.

As a health consumer, it would be good to see a move towards funding models that reward health outcomes as well as occasions of service.  But, regardless of whether we see those changes in 2 years or 20 years, the expectations of increasingly digitally-savvy health consumers will be a driver of choice, accessibility and quality, which in turn will drive the adoption of new digitally-enabled models of care.

 

Out-of-pocket costs further drive consumerism

In many health systems around the world, patients are increasingly out of pocket for their healthcare.  The more this becomes true, the more that patients will take those out-of-pocket dollars and use them to exercise choice.

In other words, the more that healthcare becomes unsustainable and unaffordable, the more that health consumers will act as a market-based counter-balance.  This may serve to finally work against the artificial, provider-driven demand in the system.

 

Health consumers will quickly drive globalised healthcare

As we think about health consumers and the adoption of digital technologies, it’s also worth noting that consumerisation will drive the globalisation of healthcare.

Using digital technologies allows virtual access to medical services around the world.  For example, I personally use a consumerised sleep tracking device to monitor the quality of my sleep, following a diagnosis of mild sleep apnea a couple of years ago.  And the sleep physician who helps me understand the data generated by the device is based in the United States, not in Australia where I live.

In the same way, many digital technologies will allow new ways of quickly matching demand with global supply.  Health consumers will increasingly have the choice to seek out high quality, affordable health services in many specialities from anywhere around the world.  This dynamic could significant impact our assumptions about future healthcare price inflation and the supply / demand equation within particular countries.  For example, rampant healthcare price inflation in some parts of the US and Australian system may see health consumers begin to trickle, and then flood towards high quality virtual services delivered out of Asia and India.

Now I’m not saying that in all cases this is desirable, or even safe.  Of course it needs to be regulated.  But it is starting to happen.  And it’s going to hit hard and fast, and take us by surprise.  Enabled by digital technologies, healthcare will quickly be globalised, as health consumers seek more accessible, higher quality and more affordable healthcare.

 

One Response to“Patients as Health Consumers”

  1. Jim St.Clair
    June 18, 2017 at 10:30 pm #

    Outstanding analysis. One thing I would add (to add a further dimension) is how “health consumers” are interested in a market that provides them alternative “products”. Like other forms of consumerism, the market serves multiple types of customers: some shop at the same store every day and buy the same product, some only shop what they can afford, and some shop for the newest innovations and willing to pay “full price” for a new market offering. Healthcare must adopt that.

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