A new study shows that while a majority of Americans believe the healthcare industry is changing how it does business to meet consumer demands, the industry still has a way to go.
And the study predicts that those companies and providers who put consumers first will gain competitive advantage by letting people make more choices about their healthcare.
"As we baby boomers continue to age, we are the most educated consumers out there and we're beginning to not take advice and treatment at face value," said Rich D' Amaro, an Atlanta-based national managing partner of KPMG Healthcare.
KPMG Peat Marwick, the U.S. component of an international accounting firm, did the 18-month study with Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University.
The two organizations released the results exclusively to MODERN HEALTHCARE last week. They expect to release them publicly this week.
For the study, they interviewed 321 executives at 70 healthcare organizations nationwide, including academic medical centers, health systems, long-term-care organizations, payers, suppliers and physician organizations. The list of participants included such industry notables as Tenet Healthcare Corp., MedPartners, PhyCor and Kaiser Permanente. The study also included telephone surveys of more than 1,800 households covered by insurance.
The study looked at the evolution of "consumerism" in healthcare, an emerging trend that shows patients are making more demands about care and the business of how it's delivered.
The change is occurring because consumers are shouldering more of their own healthcare costs; employers are giving employees choices about their health plans; and there has been consumer backlash against managed care, said Kathy Swenson, senior vice president of Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente.
Fueling it all, too, is the revolution of information technology and the growth of the Internet, which makes it easier for consumers to get reliable medical information.
Nevertheless, this is a trend that may not mature all that quickly.
The survey found that more people (75%) still did better research on the cars and televisions they buy than on their healthcare.
The study also found that across the industry, most healthcare executives believe consumer demands are increasingly influencing the business decisions made by healthcare companies on everything from policy and strategy to investment decisions.
Payers, however, were the least supportive of this notion, with one unnamed executive in the study calling the efforts toward consumerism "superficial."
While healthcare executives overall agreed that their organizations should work to better educate consumers, they don't seem to be doing much about it.
Among the findings:
Academic medical centers most strongly agreed that better consumer information should be given out, but payers earned the highest marks for doing so.
Long-term-care organizations are least likely to have innovative patient education efforts.
Organizations with a return-on-investment mentality are less likely to be innovative when it comes to educating consumers.
Healthcare organizations in markets where new payers have come in are more likely to educate consumers as a way to keep or gain market share.
Organizations in densely populated markets are less likely to focus on patient education.
However, some survey participants have come up with innovative ways to educate patients.
Take, for example, Emory Healthcare in Atlanta. Officials there have started something called a mini-medical school. It's an eight-week program in which people learn about the science of healthcare and the provider side of medicine. Since the program started four years ago, more than 2,500 people have attended the classes.
"The educated patient is a good doctor's best weapon to keep that patient well," said Randy Martin, M.D., an associate dean for clinical development at Emory Healthcare.
The road to consumer-friendly healthcare won't be smooth. About 55% of the healthcare executives surveyed pointed out problems with money and an additional 40% cited regulatory requirements as a barrier. As for internal problems, 33% mentioned changing physician attitudes.
But 18% said there aren't any obstacles to making organizations more consumer-friendly.
Healthcare executives agreed overwhelmingly that their organizations will have to develop new products, offer more choices and increase service to meet consumer demand.
About 90% of the organizations said they have expanded the number and types of services offered.
However, healthcare organizations in markets in the early stages of managed care appear less likely to develop new products, probably because they don't yet see the need to separate themselves from the pack.
Likewise, in the more mature managed-care markets, new products appear more rarely perhaps because premiums are low and companies have less money to invest in new services.
Still, some organizations are taking innovative steps. For example, one rural health system partnered with a YMCA to offer wellness programs and a payer offered transportable coverage for "snowbirds," those Northern residents who spend winter months in the South.
Healthcare organizations also overwhelmingly agreed that more money will have to be spent on ways to collect consumer feedback.
But those who said the most needs to be done aren't always the most active in doing something. Physician organizations and health systems were the least active.
Typically, healthcare organizations use focus groups and surveys to get consumer feedback. But others have taken the lead, including some payers, suppliers and health systems that base compensation on patient satisfaction.