The New Patients: Digital Technology and the New Healthcare Consumer

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US consumers continue to take a more central role in decisions about their own healthcare. Now, as technological capabilities and consumer values continue to evolve, a new type of patient is emerging. These patients are driven by a desire for greater control over their own healthcare, by a desire for more and more-timely healthcare information, by the need to control the cost of care, and often by their role as a patient with a chronic health issue or as the family member of such a patient.

These new patients are being empowered by a new set of information technologies, including smartphones and tablet computers, anywhere/ anytime mobile Internet access, new health-centric apps, and social media tools.

As a result, the “new patients” are helping to reshape the healthcare landscape and are:

  • becoming better informed about their own health and healthcare options
  • sharing information and supporting each other using social networks
  • remaking the relationship between patients and healthcare professionals into more of a partnership

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • Consumers are taking a more active role in healthcare decisions.
  • Digital technologies, especially mobile apps and social media, are enabling this trend.
  • Technologies will change the doctor-patient relationship and enable new innovative research and data-gathering practices.

3 DRIVERS

A variety of converging trends and factors are creating an environment ripe for new patient behavior.

1. Enabling technologies continue to spread. Technology availability may not be the cause of the shift toward greater patient participation in healthcare, but it is an important enabler. Digital technology, and the Web in particular, have been influencing consumers’ approach to healthcare for the last decade or more, and we appear to be in the midst of another period of rapid change as the Web goes mobile and social.

2. Consumers seek more control. A Deloitte survey of healthcare consumers concluded that “consumers embrace innovations that enhance self-care, convenience, personalization, and control of their personal health information.” Kru Research points out that patients are becoming leaders of their own healthcare teams, e.g., more frequently selecting their own treatments. The emerging healthcare consumer is often called the “e-patient” or “Internet-patient.”

3. Prevalence of chronic conditions drives change. Half (52%) of Americans surveyed report being diagnosed with a chronic medical condition. Patients with chronic conditions and their families are often more active participants in their healthcare and in many cases are early adopters of new health behaviors and technologies.

3 FUTURE CHANGES

The use of digital technology in healthcare and the roles of patients and healthcare professionals will continue to evolve.

1. Penetration of smartphones and apps. Personal mobile devices will become standard tools for consumer health tracking, healthcare, and interaction with caregivers. Some industry watchers expect that mobile devices/ smartphones will become US consumers’ primary tool for online interaction by 2015.52 Globally, 500 million people are expected to be using healthcare smartphone apps by 2015. Mobile access has already been shown to increase online patient participation — such as gathering, sharing, and creation of content. As smartphones, tablet PCs, and mobile access proliferate, online sharing of health information and experiences should continue to grow.

2. Telemedicine. In the short term, smartphone technology, teleconferencing technology, digitized medical records, and national goals to “improve the cost, quality, and accessibility of healthcare” will accelerate the adoption of telemedicine approaches such as online physician visits. The use of telemedicine will expand from rural patients to mainstream medical care — serving patients who now turn to urgent care or the emergency room because they cannot get an appointment with their primary care physician, and patients who cannot take time from work or family. Telemedicine will also become more common in chronic care. Consumers are already expressing openness to the use of digital devices for health monitoring and management: 63% of US consumers surveyed indicate interest in an in-home device that provides instructions on maintaining or improving health; 67% would be interested in an in-home monitoring device that sends results to their physician.

3. Electronic medical records (EMRs). US consumers are interested in online healthcare services and medical records; for example:

  • 57% of Americans expressed an interest in a secure Internet site to manage healthcare appointments, access records, view test results, refill prescriptions, and so forth
  • 54% would like email access to their physician
  • 42% would like an online personal health record linked to their doctor’s office, though less than 10% currently maintain a personal health record of their own. Meanwhile, US physicians and hospital operators are busily adopting EMRs, spurred by the incentive of higher Medicare payments for physicians who upgrade their health information technology, as well as the threat of lower payments to those who fail to demonstrate “meaningful use” of certified electronic health record systems by 2015. The adoption of electronic medical records will accelerate the e-patient trend in the relatively short term. Already, hundreds of US hospital systems allow patients electronic access to appointment reminders and test results, as well as connections to insurers and pharmacies.

3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

  • The advent of the digitally savvy healthcare consumer will usher in major changes for all stakeholders — patients, friends and family members, healthcare professionals, healthcare systems, insurers, pharmaceutical companies, advocacy groups, and nonprofits. The impact of many converging forces — including the adoption of new technologies, and healthcare reform efforts aimed at improving access, quality, and cost — will create both big uncertainties and big opportunities for businesses involved in the space.
  • The emergence of a savvy, proactive, and peer-influenced class of healthcare consumers challenges pharmaceutical companies, healthcare providers, and insurers to generate consumer understanding and marketing/ branding efforts at a level of sophistication similar to consumer products companies. Similarly, the advent of consumer digital healthcare technology challenges the same stakeholders to be excellent in consumer-facing IT.
  • Health-focused apps are proliferating. But as consumer choices expand, there may be opportunities for a healthcare organization or trusted brand to cut through the clutter and assemble a personal health ecosystem that includes personal devices, a manageable set of apps, and the necessary peripherals and software to manage personal health.