Healthcare Consumerism: What Do Patients Want, What Can Providers Offer?

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What Is Healthcare Consumerism?

With the recent appointment of Atul Gawande — surgeon, author, and public health Renaissance Man — to CEO of the yet-unnamed insurance venture itself formed by three CEOs, the topic of consumerism in healthcare is part of a national discussion. This group of CEOs, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, foreshadow a world in which healthcare not only treats patients’ conditions, but satisfies their preferences as customers, too. These new leaders of healthcare innovation are titans of commerce, not medical professionals. They read the pulse of the market, not the patient. And their diagnosis is grim, but treatable.

“One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent,” Bezos said in a statement. “You cannot rest on your laurels in this world. Customers won’t have it.”  

As healthcare costs rise and the financial burden is increasingly placed on the patient, consumers are demanding more control and input when it comes to their healthcare decisions. With 85 percent of healthcare costs attributed to management of long-term disease and chronic conditions, those spending the most money have the time to consider their decisions carefully and thoroughly. Greater information availability allows these patients to act as shrewd consumers whose decisions exercise tremendous influence over the healthcare landscape. In no way does consumerism conflict with or take priority over the patient experience. Rather, consumerism allows patients to be an active participant, changing the relationship between physician and patient.
Consumerism has a negative — albeit flawed — connotation. The word triggers images of crowds camping out in long lines to buy the new iPhone only to toss it once a newer, shinier model is released. However, within the domain of healthcare, the market force has multiple benefits:

  • A more informed, communicative relationship between providers and patients
  • A higher degree of cooperation and “buy-in” from patients, as seen in stronger compliance with treatment regimens and adherence to medication schedules
  • A greater awareness of wellness management and healthy lifestyle practices
  • A deeper understanding of preventive care’s necessity

Where Are We in the Consumer Shift?

As ambitious and revolutionary as healthcare consumerism’s ambitions and aims are, the fact of the matter is that a tremendous amount of work and innovation stands between our current state and the ultimate goals of greater access, better care, and lower prices. A recent and comprehensive study from KaufmanHall summarizes the current capabilities as well as the gaps and room for improvement.
The survey of hospitals indicates that consumerism has significantly increased patient access for the majority of patients. Ninety percent of respondents labeled “customer experience as a high priority.” Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported same-day appointment scheduling and patient-provider messaging, two-thirds reported extended hours for primary care clinics, and more than half have in place online self-scheduling capabilities. Continued effort, innovation, and adoption are necessary to reduce wait times, improve training for staff, and provide easy-to-understand billing statements for patients with low levels of digital literacy. Teri Culp, associate director of customer experience at Privia, noted the three most frequent complaints are long wait times, inconsiderate or unhelpful staff, and difficulty reaching the office to make an appointment or speak with a physician.

What’s Next for Healthcare Consumerism?

To understand healthcare’s consumerism’s next steps and end goals, it’s helpful to introduce the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. The law states that 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of the causes. In the case of healthcare consumerism, focusing on the 20 percent of patients with complex or chronic conditions will optimize cost savings and improve patient care by 80 percent. Previously, the advances have benefited the majority while not tackling the majority of problems.

What needs to be done to help these patients, improve the healthcare architecture, and reduce the $3 trillion in federal healthcare spending?
Consumers’ demand for transparent, accessible pricing can help reshape and repair the healthcare system.  With medical expenses as the leading cause of individuals’ bankruptcy and the burden of patient financial responsibility, consumers want to know exactly what they’ll pay for a procedure so that they can compare and assess their options. Hospitals and independent providers alike must follow the model of retailers like CVS, which offers customers accurate, readily available prices. In this model, providers are incentivized to embrace transparent pricing strategies or else they will lose customers to their more adaptive, consumer-centric competitors. This creates a self-perpetuating, positive feedback loop that can accelerate adoption. One major barrier is the gap between consumers and providers’ priorities; only 5 percent of survey respondents view transparent pricing as a primary issue. This misunderstanding is largely because providers have “low to non-existent” tools and “infrastructure for collecting, analyzing, and executing on consumer insights and analysis.” As more information on healthcare consumerism emerges, the gulf between consumer and providers’ expectations will inevitably close as supply and demand overlap.  
This dynamism is the crucial component to consumerism. Greater information availability permits an erosion of the information asymmetry. The good news is this shift is already happening inside the office. As Kay Stout, MD, noted, “Back in the days before internet, smartphones, and social media, there was an information asymmetry. Educated doctors knew and patients just listened. That’s no longer the case.” This shift in information asymmetry is a driving force for healthcare consumerism, and as time progresses, will bring about greater transparency and accessibility.

What Can You Do Now?

How can independent practices create their own consumerism strategy? Awareness of prevailing trends is the first step. Below are actionable steps you can take as an independent physician to reflect the research and trends in healthcare consumerism:

  • Maintain a navigable, user-friendly websites that prominently display contact information, hours of operation, and directions.
  • Implement an online scheduling client to assist would-be patients in making an appointment.
  • Conduct regular staff meetings to ensure front office staff are doing everything they can to reduce wait times and have positive interactions with patients.
  • Consider adding extended hours to appeal to consumers with irregular or hectic schedules.
  • Solicit feedback from patients using surveys to refine your understanding of both your patient and their in-office pain points.

Want to learn more about how consumer trends and healthcare can benefit your practice? Listen to our podcast, The Break Room, where we talk with experts about how to meet and exceed expectations to increase patient engagement and satisfaction!

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