Let’s Get Real About ‘Consumerizing’ Healthcare

There is a lot of conversation today about the rise of the consumer as a newly empowered stakeholder in the country’s healthcare system. I’m all for it. But before we further discuss the consumerization of healthcare, there are a few things we should be clear about.

It’s admirable to do whatever we can to make healthcare more accessible and transparent to the people who need it, and to help patients become active participants in their own care. Giving patients a voice — and listening closely to that voice — is the single most important driver to a better healthcare system.

Compared to a decade ago, we have a system today where patients feel they have more information and more choice. Health reforms and new technologies are, to some degree, starting to put the patient in the driver’s seat.

But the healthcare system is not a market, and patients are not consumers.

What is a market, and what is a consumer?

Go to your local shopping mall, and look at the people checking out new appliances, trying on new pairs of shoes or deciding between Thai or Mexican in the food court.  These are consumers.

Visit the emergency department at your local hospital, and look at the people getting an appendectomy, heart defibrillation or tracheotomy. Do these people look like they are comparison shopping, and can’t wait to get home and write a Yelp review?

These are patients. If they are not in actual mortal peril or terrible pain, they are at the very least vulnerable and anxious. They are not flexing their spending power like shoppers at the mall, they are getting help. Rather than going home with something shiny and new, they are most likely leaving something bad behind.

Why am I pointing out things that we already know are true? Because they are important, and too often they are overlooked when we talk about making medicine more patient-centric or empowering the “healthcare consumer.”

There are more effective things that we should be doing.

Buying a car vs. getting stitches

Consumers have quite a lot going for them today. If you’re looking to buy a car, for example, there is no reason why you should have to go into the experience blindly, with no information on the car or the dealer who will be selling you the car.

Before you even arrive at the lot, you can have as much information at your fingertips as you like, and you can have that information delivered to your smartphone, your laptop or even your mailbox. You can read about the experiences of dozens or hundreds of people who have bought the same car, and after buying it you can tell your own story for the benefit of other consumers.

Healthcare has never resembled buying a car.

You feel a terrible pain, and then it gets worse. Not sure what to do, you hope the pain will subside, and you do a few Google searches to try and diagnose yourself. The pain becomes unbearable and someone calls 911.

At the hospital, physicians perform an emergency procedure. We tell you as much as we can about what is wrong, and send you home with medicine and instructions on how to mend, and avoid the problem in the future.

Information asymmetry

After being discharged from the hospital or emergency room, the patient doesn’t just get to call the doctor on the phone to ask the follow-up questions that always come to mind during the car ride home, or in the days and weeks following the procedure. And since healthcare providers treat so many people, they of course do not have the time or the resources to call you to check in while you recover.

Quite a lot of the time in healthcare, the patient is the person with the least amount of information. That’s a sad irony, because the patient is always the one most sorely in need of information.

People are generally anxious when it comes to going in for a medical procedure, and it is the lack of information that feeds that anxiety.

For people to play an active role in their healthcare—something that is proven to lead to better health outcomes—they need enough information to ease their anxiety. This isn’t going to be accomplished by giving an answer to a single question. It’s achieved with an actual dialogue, something that is difficult when every physician has many patients to treat.

Healthcare needs to be redesigned, not rebuilt

We’re not going to ‘consumerize’ healthcare because that’s akin to turning an apple into an orange. We’re also not going to create a system of ‘patient-centric’ medicine, because any system that does not have the patient, the doctor and relevant medical data at its center would be complete chaos.

It’s probably time to drop a few of these catch-phrases we’ve been using and think more realistically about how we change healthcare for the better.

People are never going to look forward to and enjoy medical care the way they enjoy going to the store to buy things. But this doesn’t mean that seeking care must be an anxious, miserable experience where it’s hard to get the information we need.

Healthcare doesn’t need to become a marketplace, and patients do not have to become consumers, for the whole experience to be better than it is now for every stakeholder.

What will it take?

We should be thinking about the realistic steps we can take to make the healthcare experience better for patients. We must lessen the anxiety that people feel around healthcare.

We can fix the information asymmetry that causes so much anxiety in people as they prepare for or recover from a medical procedure. With information flowing freely between physicians and patients, patients will feel better and providers will make more informed treatment decisions.

People want to feel empowered. The ingredients for empowerment are continuity and connectedness.  Once these ingredients exist, the next logical step of empowerment is engagement. Engagement, non-hurried and enabled by mobile, is the medical experience all people desire.

GetWell Loop makes this kind of communication possible for the first time, at scale. Using daily automated check-ins, providers now have the means to reach out to every patient every day, however many patients come through their doors.

This communication has led to better health outcomes and a major spike in patient satisfaction with their physicians and their overall healthcare experience.

We don’t need to think of patients as consumers to offer them a better experience. We should give them the information they need, so they can at least feel some of the ease and comfort that consumers feel.