Our health is our most precious asset, and it is both empowering and reassuring to have authority over our healthcare decisions. The healthcare industry has not typically followed the model of other business sectors in seeking consumer satisfaction, and this has historically led to power imbalances that compound the feeling of vulnerability that comes with illness.
Patient preferences are now beginning to receive more consideration, which is changing all aspects of care as healthcare becomes more consumer-driven. The patient is now given more opportunities for active participation and consumer satisfaction is an increasingly important metric. But the healthcare industry is different from other consumer industries, and there isn’t a clean one-to-one translation between what works for other consumer industries and what works in the healthcare sector.
What is Healthcare Consumerism?
Healthcare consumerism reflects patients assuming roles closer to how consumers behave in other sectors. These patients are active participants in decision-making, and make independent financial choices in the healthcare marketplace, demanding more transparency than has been typical in the past. This shift of focus onto the consumer has manifested through payment options such as tax-advantaged health savings accounts, the growing importance of survey data and online consumer reviews, and technological adaptations to match expectations of the digital age. The marketplace becomes more competitive as informed consumers shop around, and this competition can lead to improvements in business practices and, potentially, health outcomes.
Of course, receiving healthcare is completely different from buying a car or, as nurses often note, staying at a hotel. The increased prevalence of consumer-focused models thus comes with a unique set of benefits and challenges. How healthcare organizations address these points presents an opportunity to edge out the competition and improve patient care, but not always both at the same time.
Consumer Autonomy: Competition in a marketplace is generally considered a good thing, and when consumers have the opportunity to decide for themselves where and how they want to receive care they provide valuable feedback (via their spending behavior) to signal what they feel is important. Healthcare organizations can stay abreast of these trends by running financial reports.
Transparency: When consumers have more financial responsibility, they demand greater transparency in pricing. This allows for a more complete understanding of the local market. Practices can stay competitive by offering advance cost estimates and a broad range of payment options.
Patient Engagement: Especially with digital tools such as patient portals and email distribution lists, it is easier for healthcare providers and patients to stay connected out of the exam room. Patients with easy access to their medical records and educational materials can play an active role in managing their own care.
Opportunity: A consumer-driven marketplace creates innumerable marketing opportunities for healthcare organizations to distinguish themselves from the competition and improve their services in competition for patients.
The Customer Isn’t Always Right: Greater consumer demands are, well, demanding. Practices will need a game plan for dealing with increased portal messaging and the like. Social media management also becomes critical to counter negative online reviews—a particularly thorny topic when privacy laws and policies often mean a provider has limited ability to counter an unfair smear.
Patients Are Not Model Economic Actors: Just because patients assume responsibility for their care and financial decision-making doesn’t mean they will navigate a complicated system well. Indeed, many patients will not do much research at all when it comes to managing healthcare and determining how to pay for it.
Patient Preferences Affect Health Outcomes: As one physician puts it, “In healthcare, the sum of the pieces is sometimes worse, sometimes better—but always different—than its component parts.” When a patient drives their healthcare, their decision-making can greatly deviate from the evidence-based trajectory their trained care providers would have them on. It is thus critical to maintain good communications.
Healthcare consumerism present healthcare organizations with many opportunities and challenges, and is a trend that will only continue to grow. Practices will need to keep evolving to meet the demand and support the patient’s best interests.