Empowering patients is more transformational than you thought (or feared)

December 12, 2018
By C. Anthony Jones

Patient empowerment has been at or near the top of healthcare organizations’ priorities for years. The logic is straightforward: empowered patients are more engaged in their care, more adherent to physicians’ instructions, make smarter decisions with respect to healthcare utilization and ultimately derive better clinical and financial outcomes.

While the logic may be straightforward, meaningful patient empowerment remains elusive. The industry correctly points to the substantial improvements in consumer access to medical records and increases in the number of apps and health information resources available online. But in many ways, these improvements represent incremental enablers of patient empowerment, not a true shift from the status quo.

What empowerment is and isn’t

Empowerment is authority or power given to someone to do something. The key point: power is actually transferred from one person (or organization) to another. While healthcare organizations have enthusiastically transferred responsibility and costs to consumers, efforts to transfer decision-making power and the information necessary to make those decisions have been slow, sporadic and at times, disingenuous.

Too often, patient empowerment initiatives wind up as rebranding efforts, designed to mask outdated thinking and approaches. Rather than start from the organization’s core and work outward toward consumers, these initiatives limit their scope to refreshing superficial touch points between the organization and consumers. A "friendlier" logo with rounded edges and vibrant colors or a more pleasant website with images of active people are nice, but are not substitutes for true patient empowerment.

Five transformational shifts required for patient empowerment

If organizations want to reap the benefits of patient empowerment, they need to embrace – not grudgingly accept – the fact that it requires transformational change. As such, these changes need to start at the organization’s core and redefine a host of long-held beliefs and approaches.

1: Acknowledge the lack of muscle memory for consumer service
For healthcare organizations, most of their day-to-day, direct customer transactions are with other large businesses. In this B2B world, these organizations’ structures, operational processes and technology are optimized to support these transactions. Becoming more consumer-centric represents a massive "inside-out" change and requires new thinking that is not currently resident within the organization.

What to do next? Do not reinvent the wheel. Identify a company in the B2C space – retail, hospitality, travel – that most closely mirrors the type of relationship you want to have with consumers. Learn from them. Copy them. Hire people from them.

2: Appreciate that healthcare information access is not healthcare literacy
Allowing consumers to see every lab or study result should not be confused with helping that consumer understand what to do (or not do) with that information. Likewise, the power and ubiquity of online search is a major enabler of empowerment, but, absent a provider’s knowledge and experience to put the information into proper context, can do more harm than good.

What to do next? Recognize that portals, apps and online health resources can be extremely useful for some healthcare activities, but are insufficient where clinical judgment and context are needed. Use technology and information resources appropriately.

3: Calculate your actual costs
Price transparency for healthcare services is slowly becoming a reality (see below). Before posting prices online, it’s essential for organizations to know exactly what it costs to deliver their most common products and services. How much time do staff spend before, during and after a procedure? What are the costs of all goods used for that procedure (vs. those on standby that can be returned to stock)? A revealing Wall Street Journal article, What Does Knee Surgery Really Cost? highlighted the gap between what hospitals bill patients and insurers and the actual costs incurred to perform certain services.

What to do next? Calculating prices is not terribly difficult, but it is labor intensive. If funds are available to hire a professional services/consulting firm that has done similar work in the past, engage them where you can.

4: Demand comparative effectiveness data to support product and service claims
It is much easier to say that something is better than to actually prove it with meaningful data. But with healthcare costs continuing to rise – now surpassing 18% of the U.S. gross domestic product – providers can no longer justify use of a new drug, device or procedure that costs five to ten times the next best alternative without seeing comparative effectiveness data from the manufacturer.

What to do next? Let the market do what it is supposed to do when buyers of products and services demand better or different. Where some sellers might decry this as unreasonable, others will see an opportunity to outperform their competitors by satisfying customer demands.

5: Embrace price, quality and financial relationship transparency
To the extent that some piece of information – prices, quality ratings, volume data or financial relationships between industry and providers – may impact consumer choice, it should be readily available to those consumers. A recent RAND report supports this transparency, encouraging consumer input into hospital rankings as well as tools that support personalized consumer choices. Similarly, a Healthcare Dive article discussed how U.S. News & World Report is replacing patient safety indicators (PSIs) with hospital consumer assessment of healthcare providers and systems (HCAHPS) when determining hospital rankings.

What to do next? Instead of fearing transparency, consider the opportunity to outperform your competitors by proactively moving in this direction. This shift will be uncomfortable and there is substantial risk. Move slowly, but start immediately.

Before despairing over the perceived magnitude of these transformations, recognize that all B2C organizations routinely operate this way. Not only do they compete, they thrive and are among the most successful businesses in the world. If healthcare organizations truly want empowered patients making smarter healthcare choices, its essential that consumers are provided with decision-making authority and the information needed to support those decisions. Getting there will neither be fast nor easy, but the payoff for healthcare organizations that proactively move in that direction may be substantial.

About the author: C. Anthony Jones is the CEO of Frontive.