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Why the Future of Healthcare Depends on Empowering the Consumer

Confident young adult healthcare consumer


Physicians will tell you: one of the more difficult aspects of patient care in the 21st Century is cutting through healthcare consumers’ Internet-derived misconceptions, anxiety and pre-programmed beliefs.

Many patients walk in to an appointment convinced they have this or that condition, or having treated themselves at home via this or that method, based solely upon what they have Googled, read online, or seen posted on social media. While it is it helpful to have online resources that healthcare consumers can consult to find out more about their symptoms or overall wellness indicators, the reliability of the wealth of information available is spotty.

Healthcare consumers’ expectations begin at home.

Physicians and healthcare organizations are fighting an information war on two fronts: On the one hand, they must find ways to engage and empower healthcare consumers. On the other, they face a chaotic, Wild West online environment that disseminates reliable information, fanciful information and out-and-out falsehoods in equal measure.

Clinicians find themselves in the unenviable position of having to reset patients’ expectations in the office, in the clinic, or on the ward—but perhaps the spread of misinformation should be stopped before patients reach the hospital.

“Patients should be discouraged from searching for health information online,” wrote Debra Zalvan, Executive Vice President of Marketing at UbiCare, in a letter to the Washington Post, responding to a previous article which had seemingly advocated that patients take more of the lead in guiding healthcare discussions.

“Online sources are often unreliable and conflicting,” she asserted. “When doctors and hospitals provide education and set patient expectations, patients feel connected, informed, empowered and able to take a larger part in their health and health care.”

Be that as it may, there are segments of the healthcare consumer population that will react negatively to being told not to investigate health information or solutions on the Internet.  Such a directive may actually reinforce such behaviors.  I’ve written before about psychographic segmentation and the various “health personalities” that exist among consumers. Two segments, though very different in their health behaviors, can share a similar attitude regarding being told what to do by a healthcare professional.  Balance Seekers, one of the most wellness-oriented of five psychographic segments, and Willful Endurers, the least engaged in wellness, would not appreciate being told to stop exploring websites; a more suggestive approach is necessary and Balance Seekers react well to options and choices.

That’s why, in the move toward a care delivery system based on healthcare consumerism, the industry must make stronger efforts to more effectively engage consumers and overcome their misconceptions.

Healthcare providers and care systems should more and more get into the business of setting expectations before consumers ever grace their doors. Providers must be proactive in leading patients to accurate information. Doctors and other clinical staff should be reaching out — in person or remotely —  to guide healthcare discussions.

Healthcare providers need to empower consumers with reliable health information alternatives to Google.

That’s what Chicago’s NorthShore University HealthSystem seeks to do with the launch of its new Myra Rubenstein Weis Health Resource Center. The center is a health information library, free, open to patients and the general public, where people can access vetted, accurate sources and obtain help in the form of guided searches.

"You have to know how to direct your search,” Carol Flanagan, clinical coordinator for NorthShore’s LIFE Cancer Survivorship Program, told the Chicago Tribune. "The goal is to direct [healthcare consumers] to reliable resources that are evidence-based. There is so much information out there. It can be confusing, contradictory and overwhelming."

Google searches and websites may not be wrong, but they lack nuance. Information available on the web might apply to patients in one situation, but not in another. That can lead to ill-advised actions on the part of healthcare consumers or caregivers.

A case in point.

"Let's say a breast cancer patient has been experiencing hot flashes because of the hormonal treatment they are on," Flanagan said. "If they Google what to do for hot flashes, they are going to get reliable information that tells them to increase the soy in their diet or take soy supplements."

Hot flash sensations in women are usually caused by low estrogen levels — this is the reason menopausal women experience them. And because soy foods contain an estrogen precursor, increasing soy intake should help to reduce the occurrence of hot flashes.

But, Flanagan noted, estrogen supplementation and soy intake can be deadly for a breast cancer patient, because some types of breast cancers are stimulated by the presence of estrogen.

"If they have an estrogen-receptor breast cancer, then the worst thing they can do is increase their soy," she told the Tribune. Not every breast cancer patient will refine her online search with the term “breast cancer,” so many could unwittingly harm themselves by adhering to bad advice.

By extension, then, it would behoove the healthcare industry to undertake serious efforts to empower consumers with accurate information. With empowerment should come better outcomes.

“There is still a strong need for physician guidance and intervention to accurately interpret and act,” wrote Healthcare IT News contributor Marc Sebes, VP of Product Management at mHealth vendor Validic.

That’s one reason why the continued development of online care delivery is so important. Services like Doctors on Demand — which facilitate video chat-based consultations between patients and board-certified physicians — could, if widely adopted by healthcare consumers and providers, assist in cutting through the online static.

Providers should, “lead the way” in making sure that patient-generated online queries are guided to opportunities for consultations and interventions that would improve outcomes, Sebes argued.

The empowerment of healthcare consumers could reduce unnecessary utilization.

Another potential boon for the American healthcare industry, that could be realized by finding better ways of guiding healthcare consumers to more accurate health information and empowering them to be proactive in their healthcare, would be to reduce ER usage, bounceback admissions and avoidable office visits.

In some ways, the industry creates its own inefficiencies. Press releases that offer only dire warnings about the consequence of not screening for this or that condition offer little in the way of consumer empowerment, relying on fear-based healthcare marketing rather than education or understanding.

The industry needs to do a better job of self-policing its providers and its marketers. Fear cannot be a primary driver of business. The healthcare industry, as a whole, has an obligation and, indeed, incentive to provide healthcare consumers with straightforward information that can assist in healthcare decision making. To do otherwise is to encourage unnecessary care and, potentially, invite litigation.

A successful pivot toward healthcare consumerism depends on an empowered, well-informed and discerning healthcare consumer base.

The industry has an essential role to play in developing such a consumer population. Healthcare providers must take more responsibility for clearing up consumers’ misconceptions, for identifying and taking down purveyors of false or misleading health information and for guiding patients to accurate sources.

To that end, the industry must work to build patient engagement tools that help consumers become better critical thinkers about their healthcare. Engaged consumers are empowered healthcare consumers. Empowered healthcare consumers are better consumers. And better consumers make better patients.

Psychographic Segmentation and its Practical Application in Patient Engagement and Behavior Change


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