Today, more than ever, people want to take responsibility for managing their own health.
In other industries, such as retail, people have much more control over the information they share and the information they have about a product or purchase.
They’re able to compare features, benefits and costs — often after an initial visit to a website — and make purchasing decisions in a matter of minutes.
Healthcare, on the other hand, often provides a more confusing array of information, contact points, and service options (without any upfront pricing information), which makes it more difficult for patients to feel responsible for their care.
In order to combat the uncertainties presented in healthcare, more patients are being drawn into what’s known as “consumer healthcare.”
Patients demand more transparency from their doctors, and it’s changing the way the medical world does business
What is Healthcare Consumerism?
More than 75% of patients consider their healthcare decisions more important than any other purchasing decision they make.
Yet, many still feel frustrated by the lack of information available about their own care.
Frequent healthcare policy changes, increases and decreases in costs for care (and coverage), doctor specialties and differing practices between clinics can all contribute to the confusion.
This has led to the rise of healthcare consumerism — a growing trend where the economic purchasing power and decision-making is in the hands of participants, rather than the care providers.
One of the effects of consumerism that is most seen today is the change in the healthcare marketplace when it comes to purchasing health insurance.
Consumers have more influence than ever over which health plans matter to them. As high-deductible health plans continue to increase, so does the demand for better and more diverse options.
This has created a more competitive environment for insurers, who struggle to create plans that are both affordable and comprehensive.
It can be equally frustrating for care providers, however, especially when certain care options are covered for only a certain number of patients.
How Consumerism Impacts Patient Satisfaction
But consumerism can be a good thing, too.
According to NRC Health, from the provider’s perspective, healthcare consumerism is designed to provide better healthcare by helping to:
- Foster closer communications and cooperation between doctors and their patients
- Increase patient buy-in and compliance with treatment recommendations
- Increase patients’ knowledge and awareness of lifestyle and wellness practices
- Focus more on preventative medicine by encouraging healthy activities and habits
While healthcare consumerism is changing the way hospitals and clinics “do business,” it’s all in the name of better patient satisfaction.
Matias Klein, Vice President of product management at Change Healthcare, explains that consumerism in hospitals is being driven by the mandated transition to value-based care.
“Patients are expecting a more retail-like experience from healthcare systems, providers, and hospitals, and organizations must adapt otherwise their finances may suffer,” he says.
Healthcare consumers should ultimately make the patient experience better.
But some patients are finding that there are limits to how much they can play the “savvy consumer” when it comes to their health.
Patients are not doctors, and as helpful as a Google search can be in some cases, it’s not always possible to get an accurate diagnosis without consulting a physician, for example.
But allowing patients to perform research before their visit may make it easier for doctors to ask the right questions and give advice during an appointment.
Yet consumerism is still limited. Even if they have adequate information about their care, they may be unable to choose freely because of health plan restrictions.
Though the trend toward consumerism should ideally allow practices to provide better, more patient-focused care, there is still a long way to go when it comes to giving patients freedom and access to the care they want and need.
What Consumerism Means for Your Practice
There are several things that clinics and hospitals can do to foster positive consumerism (put the power in the hands of their patients) while still maintaining a sense of balance:
1. Healthcare organizations need to set expectations up front
Unlike retail businesses, clinics and hospitals may not always be able to clearly communicate the full cost of a certain procedure or appointment. Varying factors can change costs from one patient to another.
But they can provide as much information as possible up front, and communicate how payments are expected to be made, what the patient may reasonably expect to pay, and how the procedure will go.
This allows patients to have more information up front, and may impact the way they make decisions about their care, rather than being left in the dark only to receive an unexpected bill later on.
2. Providers will need to better understand patient history
Because patients will have more control over their care options from now and into the future, it’s important for doctors and staff to get a better understanding of all care the patient has received before the appointment.
This might include a background on any alternative or non-medical care that a patient has received, as well as a better background on their symptoms.
Time-saving technology, like online intake forms, can help gather this information for busy doctors before an appointment. But practitioners will need to pay special attention to patient history going forward.
3. Private practices and clinics will need to reassure patients of care
As patients are given more choices when it comes to their care providers, it will be increasingly important for hospitals and clinics to communicate the things that separate them from other clinics.
Consumers take note of “patient satisfaction,” for example.
Including reviews of specific providers, or reviews of the clinic online can help steer patients toward the best care.
This also means making more time to conduct patient surveys or to ask patients to review online, and responding to those comments in a timely manner, which may be something that office staff is not yet trained to do.
4. Care providers will need to focus on holistic treatment options
For many consumer-minded patients, healthcare doesn’t stop once you leave the doctor’s office. The trend toward consumerism may have an impact on outpatient services more than inpatient services.
Patients that rely on referrals from their doctor may start to ask questions when they are referred to an out-of-network provider. For doctors, this means having an in-network alternative, or a stronger reason for patients to see an out-of-network provider.
This might require more research and time dedicated to finding alternative care for patients, should they request it.
5. Practitioners will need to be aware of differences in consumerism trends
Regional differences will also affect how much patients are moving toward consumerism, and the types of responses and care that healthcare providers can give.
In areas where people have not been hit as hard with high deductibles and restrictive health plans, for example, costs may not be as significant of an issue for some patients, which frees up options for providers.
In other areas where deductibles are higher or care is less available, patients might be limited in what they can do or who they can see. This may limit their ability to choose, lowering patient satisfaction.
Providers will need to understand how their location and available options impacts the care they give, so that they can offer patients as much freedom as possible in order to keep them satisfied with their care.
Consumerism is changing the way that providers are able to give care.
While this may make certain things more difficult, like working with insurers to find comprehensive plans that cover needed care, it can also make things better for the patients.
Providers should focus on giving patients as much information as they can up front, and offering them alternatives to care wherever possible.
The more choices that patients have (for the most part), the happier they will be.