Consumerism: Patients Need Partners

Recent reports have been gloomy on the consumerist movement in health care.

The Center for Studying Health System Change released a report recently that indicated today’s patients still find physicians how they used to: through word of mouth and referrals from other physicians.  Patients have also used quality and price information sparingly to aid in health care decision making.

The WSJ Health Blog highlighted (another CSHSC) report that concluded the number of patients who have utilized retail clinics “turns out to be modest.”

What’s going on?  Three possibilities:

  1. Patients are still spending someone else’s money (all health care dollars flow from households, but patients never actually touch it and don’t have the ability to use the cash in another fashion, as they say: perception is reality).
  2. Resources to compare quality and price information are slim (but growing).  We don’t agree on what constitutes quality (metrics or outcomes or patient experience) or how to report price (charge or cost, discounted or not?).
  3. Trust is still a factor.  This interweb thing is still relatively new…especially to health care.  Could it be that patients still trust their personal (mostly offline) networks more than an online network (which, by the way, seems the way people will find physicians: through online networks (word of mouth) accompanied by data)?  It should also be noted that the majority of patients utilizing health care services today are older and thus, much less likely to be comfortable with depending upon online resources for decision making.

A BusinessWeek article highlights consumerist proponent Regina Herzlinger and her approach to health care reform.  The article states that Herzlinger’s ideal world would contain:

  • Consumers tailor their own health-care coverage, navigating in a national insurance market.
  • Everyone must buy insurance, and the federal government maintains strict oversight to ensure price and coverage fairness.
  • Small, disease-specific hospitals care for patients who don’t need all the services offered by medical centers.
  • A national database contains the prices and outcomes for procedures at every hospital and clinic, so consumers can make informed choices.
  • Individuals get generous tax breaks to buy their own insurance, with subsidies for those with low incomes.

Here’s the important part:

Herzlinger doesn’t want anyone but consumers managing. Only then, she says, will innovations be unleashed that improve quality. “People can choose from 240 models and makes of cars pretty intelligently,” she says. “Why do we assume they can’t do the same when it comes to their health?” She notes that her suggestions are “relatively low-cost,” which makes them even more attractive given the financial crisis.

The idea sounds good in theory (and it may prove to be the solution in action).  But, as of right now, this young movement has failed to truly take hold (young is the operant word, here).  There are likely multiple causes, but the most significant is this: health care is complicated.  That has not, and will not, change overnight.  We have normative behaviors that have been ingrained since the beginning of modern medicine and that, very basically, takes time to change.

Although somewhat controversial, programs being offered by companies like OptumHealth (a subsidiary of UnitedHealth) can act as the perfect bridge into consumer-driven health care in situations that allow for analysis and discussion.  These companies provide free assistance to patients and families when they seek treatment by helping them assess quality (there are some concerns, rightly so, that an insurance company particpating in such decision-making may have a conflict of interest).

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

… OptumHealth and a variety of competitors are compiling sophisticated report cards that rate hospitals and medical centers by critical measures such as staff expertise, patient mortality, outcomes and cost.

Their reach is huge and growing. OptumHealth alone serves some 40 million health plan members and managed 5,000 transplants last year. The national Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, with a similar strategy, covers 100 million people.

Their conclusion so far: Given a choice and guided by an expert like Imig, patients generally will head for the highest-quality center, even if it turns out to be far from home, friends and family.

Talk to any physician; no one expects or wants individuals to be self-diagnosing even though information is available on every disease and treatment options.  The same goes, at least for now, for quality and cost data: patients need partners.

One thought on “Consumerism: Patients Need Partners

  1. Interesting points, especially regarding the ways people find physicians. I saw other stats recently that suggested something else: that 81% of consumers go online to find information about hospitals (compared to 59% who go to their doctors); and that 80% of online Americans hae turned to the internet to find healthcare answers. So while the word of mouth aspect–the trust factor–may still come into play for decision-making, the information-gathering work is done online in the majority of cases.

    An increasing number of hospitals now have quality data available to the public, but there’s still general consumer unease and (natural, I think) cynicism about which measures are reported (and whether it’s only those that paint a positive picture).

    Looking forward to reading your other posts 🙂

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s