Technology key to growing consumerism trend in healthcare

Consumerism in healthcare is one of those trends that has been "looming" for an awfully long time. When the experts first predicted that patients would start shopping for providers as if healthcare was any other businesses--making decisions based on price, quality, and brand recognition, for example--the idea was met with skepticism, to say the least.

Over the years, the language used to describe the concept of consumerism morphed: the call for transparency gave way to talk of patient satisfaction to build loyalty, which in turn shifted to cries for a better patient experience to improve quality. And lately the focus has shifted, yet again, to patient engagement and e-patients.

Meanwhile, with each change came more champions ... and the number of skeptics and doctor-knows-best holdouts dwindled. In the past couple of years, the view that providers should treat patients as if they are partners in their own care has advanced especially fast--at least when compared to the glacial pace of change that's a hallmark of the healthcare industry.

Why? What's changed in the last 10 or so years to move this trend from "looming" to "arrived"?

Clearly, technology is a big part of the answer to that question. And if you needed further proof that mobile devices and other advances in technology are changing the way patients view and interact with the healthcare system, you need look no further than this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where all manner of consumer-facing healthcare apps, devices, and products were on display. Even car companies are getting in on the e-health market.

In past years, I've followed the news out of CES from the point of view of a consumer with an interest in technology. This was the first year I watched from the point of view of a healthcare technology reporter. It's one thing to see these kinds of technologies at healthcare-specific conferences. It's another to see them enter the mainstream.

But even in the face of overwhelming evidence that health and wellness apps and devices have arrived and that the market for e-health products will continue to grow, there still are skeptics. (Not to mention the folks who continue on about cyberchrondriacs--an overhyped condition if ever there was one.)  

Just this week, Harvard Business Review published an online article on the drawbacks of treating patients as consumers.

"To be a patient today is to be treated as a consumer. But treating patients as typical proactive, in control, well-informed consumers can backfire," the authors of that piece wrote.

"Asked to take on increasingly complex decisions and digest ever-larger amounts of information, patients find themselves placed--often by design--in the driver's seat. High-deductible insurance plans aspire to make the cost implications of care more transparent and implicitly shift decision-making to members. The 'empowered patient' movement encourages patients to become hyper-informed and to take control over their care. But providing greater information, access and autonomy--so often successful in consumer settings--does not necessarily drive better care or experience."

I'll admit that, back in the earliest days of the consumerism trend, I was one of the skeptics. I just didn't think patients would put all that much time and effort into doing something that someone else has always done for them. Why would anyone research specialists when the primary care physician can choose one for them--and the office staff can set up the appointment before they even walk out the door? Why should anyone care about the cost of procedures--isn't that the insurance company's job? Who would even want to look at their own medical records, with all of that inscrutable data? 

And I know there are plenty of folks out there who still don't believe consumerism in healthcare is a good idea--I'm sure there are even some who refuse to believe it exists.

Still, I think that view is becoming less prevalent. Take a look at the comments on the HBR article and see if you don't see signs that it's no longer accurate to describe consumer-driven healthcare or its younger cousins--mHealth, e-health and e-patients--as looming trends.

They've definitely arrived. - Gienna