Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The new healthcare consumer

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By Matthew Arnold, Principal Analyst, Manhattan Research

Hey, whatever happened to the “Empowered Consumer?”

I’ll confess to cringing a bit when I hear that term, dated and redolent of early Oughties optimism as it is. I guess part of what icks me out is the problematic nature of the term “consumer,” which implicitly commoditizes living, breathing patients. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a lowing cash cow in a hospital gown -- we’re much more comfortable with the “empowered” part.

However, it’s hard to talk about healthcare marketing without invoking the ‘C’ word, and today’s patient is, without a doubt, behaving more like a consumer of healthcare goods and services than ever before. She’s online searching for images of symptoms before she even calls the doctor. She’s showing up to doctor visits prepared, having done her research on WebMD. She’s looking up condition and treatment information at the doctor’s office or the pharmacy, script in one hand, smartphone in the other. These things give her a sense of control over her healthcare, in addition to making for more productive time with healthcare professionals – just as all that Millenarian marketing happy talk promised!

The flip side of this is that she’s being asked to take a much larger role in decision-making about her healthcare, even as her healthcare choices are more and more constrained through narrow networks, restrictive formulary lists and hefty copays on branded drugs. And she’s increasingly being rewarded or penalized according to the costliness of her choices to payers.

Moreover, even as Affordable Care Act-spurred competition has held down insurance premiums in many markets, many consumers are nonetheless paying more – some because the coverage in their old plans was deemed insufficient under the ACA, others through higher deductibles, steep copays or coinsurance. One-third of online consumers surveyed for our CyberCitizen Health® U.S. 2014 study said that health costs have gotten worse compared to two years ago, while barely one in ten said costs have gotten better, and nearly one-quarter reported spending more of their own money on healthcare now than they did a year ago. The cost of health services and medications was among the most-researched health topics online in 2014, with 16% of online adults reporting they had researched cost info online.

If higher upfront costs are the stick driving consumerization of healthcare, technological transformation is the carrot. When asked how their experience with doctors and hospitals had changed over the previous two years, nearly one-third of online consumers cited improved use of technology. Patients are increasingly accessing their health data through patient portals and communicating with physicians and other healthcare professionals through email and text messages. This year, we’ll see virtual visits begin to really take off.

As medicine moves wholly into the digital realm, consumer expectations of providers are converging with those for digital commerce. They expect the same kind of seamless online experience out of Cleveland Clinic that they get from, well, Seamless – and digital innovators like Cleveland Clinic are providing it, thereby giving themselves a potentially critical competitive edge at a time when consumers are shopping around for providers. Thanks to doctor and hospital ratings websites like Healthgrades, ZocDoc or Vitals and cost transparency services like CastLight, choosing a doctor, hospital, procedure or prescription medication is becoming more like booking a flight on Kayak or Expedia. Smart healthcare companies will be paying extremely careful attention to their user experience – a concept familiar, perhaps, to folks who work in digital health, but otherwise utterly foreign to a sector in which interaction with consumers has historically been mediated by a priestly caste of physicians (the Digital Reformation is upon us).

Meanwhile, on the provider side, healthcare reform has incentivized patient engagement through Meaningful Use benchmarks and by drawing hospitals, health systems and providers into Accountable Care Organizations and other mechanisms through which they are responsible for population health. Recent weeks have seen a dramatic acceleration in movement away from a fee-for-service system, with both public and private payers setting aggressive goals for reimbursement based on qualitative and outcomes measures. A good user experience is no longer a nice-to-have frill when keeping consumers engaged in their health is a big part of how providers get paid.

For pharmas, this dynamic means that having fast-loading, easily navigable mobile or screen-agnostic sites on all brands is a basic must, as our data show that poor mobile sites are frequently abandoned for larger screens or abandoned altogether. Consumer digital properties should highlight help with drug costs by allocating prime online real estate to patient assistance programs and coupon offers. Beyond acquisition, patient support resources deserve careful consideration, and patient education materials are in high demand among HCPs, who face new pressure to keep their patients engaged and on therapy.

For this emerging, more consumer-ish patient, comparison shopping for healthcare products and services is second nature. Pharmas shouldn’t be found wanting in their digital offerings.Much as they must develop products in a patient-centric way, companies need to deliver their products in a way that’s suited to our technology-enabled and increasingly consumer-driven healthcare system.

About the author: Matthew Arnold is Principal Analyst at Manhattan Research, a Decision Resources Group company that uses proprietary data and analytics to help healthcare and life sciences companies understand healthcare consumer and professional use of digital technology. For a taste of what they do, see their presentation of Digital Trends Pharma Should Use Everyday at ePharma on Tuesday, February 24. For more of Matt’s musings on digital healthcare, check out the Manhattan Research blog.  As a reader of this blog, when you register to join us and mention code XP2006BL, you save $100 off the current rate!
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