Engaging Patients in the Age of the Consumer

The Institute for Healthcare Consumerism 05.30.2014

By: Yale Miller, Executive Vice President, Aegis Health Group

The time has come for consumerism in health care. There has been no other period in our history when individuals were more empowered to make “buy” decisions regarding their health care. And there has been no time ever that Americans have been asked to finally take responsibility for their own health.

From the rise of cost-sharing arrangements such as high-deductible health plans to the health insurance exchanges created as a result of the Affordable Care Act, consumers are increasingly being charged with making their own choices at all points along the care continuum.

This is good news for payers and employers.

Population health management – the fundamental concept behind the ACA – hinges on keeping people well and managing costly chronic conditions. If done right, health costs could hypothetically stabilize as more consumers stay out of the hospital. Under the ACA, hospitals and health systems are increasingly transforming themselves from enterprises offering services within four walls to accountable care organizations that manage a defined population’s health – offering services and programs outside the hospital. This reality makes hospitals and health systems ideal partners to create wellness programs that work.

Data Drives Population Health

In “population health 2.0”, health systems are proactively creating critical linkages with their local employers and community groups to identify health risks and manage consumers’ health through an ongoing outreach strategy. By collecting and tracking data about consumers with their informed consent, hospitals can proactively build relationships and develop tailored prevention and wellness services customized for each individual. The reach of the Internet helps facilitate this process. According to Pew Center research:

  • 60 percent of U.S. adults say they track their weight, diet or exercise routine; and 33 percent track health indicators or symptoms like blood pressure, blood sugar, headaches or sleep patterns using online or mobile tools.
  • 46 percent attribute tracking to an overall change in their approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone for whom they are a caregiver.
  • 40 percent say that tracking has led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor; and 34 percent say it has affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.

In the most strategic use of the Web for managing population health, some highly evolved health systems are offering online portals that actually engage consumers before they become “patients”. These portals are a hallmark of population health 2.0 because they go beyond collecting only clinical information, and they make a concerted effort to connect with consumers who aren’t yet patients. They do this through conscious engagement initiatives that support health monitoring, prevention and education programming, health risk reduction and other relevant initiatives.

These comprehensive population health portals are essentially “one-stop” health management destinations. They allow consumers to view personalized health information tailored to their health risks, concerns and interests. They can track health improvements and biometrics such as weight, cholesterol and blood glucose as well as schedule classes, workshops and health screenings. Some health systems even offer online health coaching and syncing with health devices, such as Fitbits and Nike Fuel Bands.

Using laptops or tablets in the field along with integrated, wireless screening devices, some hospitals are sending health professionals out to worksites and community events to reach consumers where they live, work, play or worship. They can capture health metrics “real time” and foster instant engagement with consumers by offering them almost instantaneous personal health reports and linking them on the spot to patient portals that can help them achieve their health goals. This also serves as an early-entry pathway for moving at-risk individuals to appropriate preventive or corrective care, such as health coaching or condition management.

In the age of accountable care, health systems are increasingly committed to embracing the population health 2.0 consumerism trend. In an independent study Aegis Health Group conducted last fall – our second year in a row – we found that the number of hospital leaders who rated focusing on customer values as “extremely important” nearly doubled from 18 percent in 2012 to 34 percent a year later. In addition, 21 percent said they planned to increase their outreach to employers in their area, and almost one-third said they have increased their formal population health management programs.

Despite the inevitable tweaks that legislators will make to the mechanics of the ACA, one thing will remain constant: consumerism in health care is here to stay.  And that ultimately benefits everyone: employers, payers, patients and the health systems charged with keeping people healthy.



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