Consumerism is an eternal buzzword in healthcare. But it is a difficult and somewhat controversial trend to define, as some argue that transforming patients as mere consumers of health care pulls some humanity out of the equation of providing medical care.
During the first day of HIMSS’s annual health conference, speakers at the summit tried to put some context around the term and delineate how hospitals can weave consumerism into their operations to try to provide a better patient experience and care.
Even before COVID-19, healthcare had begun to evolve from a provider-oriented world, where decisions were made around the physician, to a consumer-centric one, based on the health needs of unique individuals. As such, it is important to approach consumerism from a clinical – not a clinician – perspective, panelists said.
This means keeping the entire patient experience at the top of the mind, instead of just the experience the doctor is used to providing.
The biggest question hospitals should ask themselves is, “How do we think about meeting the primary care needs of these patients as consumers?” Tom Kiesau, head of Chartis Digital at Chartis Group, said at a Monday panel.
For many physicians, defining the difference between a patient and a consumer is a “struggle” with management, but “they are two sides of the same coin,” said Tarun Kapoor, SVP and Chief Digital Transformation Officer at Virtua Health, a nonprofit system. in southern New Jersey.
One way of thinking about it is that a person is a consumer if they shop between places to get a flu shot, but they become a patient when they form a deeper, more longitudinal relationship with a doctor or provider. “The key component for us, for all of us, is the integration of these journeys,” Kapoor said. “The people who can figure out how to integrate it seamlessly will win the day.”
However, integrating this seamlessly is easier said than done.
As provider competition has increased over the past decade or so, hospitals began to see consumer-focused facilities like same-day planning or concierge programs as a way to increase online assessments and cement patient loyalty without sacrificing the bottom line. Consumerism was the top of many leaders’ minds even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for digital healthcare products increased.
But despite consumerism growing in importance, few hospitals have fully committed to the trend, according to a Kaufman Hall study of health systems completed last year.
The vast majority of systems that participated in the study did not live up to the benchmark to be defined as best in class for redesign of delivery system, pricing and digital infrastructure. Only 7% did, Kaufman Hall found.
This is despite the fact that consumerism is an important way to remain competitive, both with peers and with industry disruptive as large technology companies and payers interested in entering into direct care services as consumers raise their expectations for their medical experience.
But there are strategies hospitals can pursue to reorient themselves around the consumer experience, including giving potential patients more access to their organization, such as chatbots, scheduling tools and telesealth visits, panelists said.
“I think the whole health paradigm of the last few years is that patients are coming to us. We are not coming to them,” said Nick Patel, Chief Digital Officer at South Carolina nonprofit Prisma Health. “That whole paradigm is changing.”
Management should try to identify the key components of the patient’s journey, in order to reset the use cases that hospitals need to address before targeting them with technology. It’s the key to avoiding a tangle of point solutions, while ensuring that physicians and medical professionals feel confident that a new digital health tool will not take up more of their time and contribute to “click fatigue” or burnout, which is grows in severity as COVID-19 barrels into its third year, panelists noted.
Hospital leaders also need to prioritize things like governance and interoperability, while focusing intensely on what they are trying to deliver as an organization. Some problems are better solved by hiring additional staff instead of throwing a point solution at it, but the shift to consumerism for most organizations necessitates the addition of adaptable and scalable technology at the end of the day.
But the speakers noted that it is important not to exacerbate inequalities by only increasing access for consumers with technological know-how and access.
Many barriers, including lack of devices, technical knowledge, or reliable Internet coverage, make it difficult for patients to access virtual care services – especially those living in low-income, minority, and rural areas.
Approximately 19 million Americans, or 6% of the population, do not have access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In rural areas, almost a quarter of the population lacks access to the service. It makes it difficult to reach these underserved populations with technology, prevent the admission of virtual care at a time when deep medical inequalities in the United States are particularly sharp.
“The biggest thing I’m always sensitive to is that there’s already a health gap in America. If you put technology on top, you’re exacerbating that barrier,” Patel said. “Ultimately, we need to make sure the patient is at the center.”
Managers need to be sure that they maintain access to all facets of their patient mix and that – despite being pressured by consumerism – they do not modernize out of reach of any American consumer. This means maintaining services such as call centers and capacity at walk-in clinics.
“Not everyone will be excited about a digital route. Some people just want to talk to someone,” said Nassar Nizami, Chief Information Officer and Chief Digital Officer of the Jefferson Health Regional System.