Skip to content Skip to navigation

Healthcare Consumers Seize Market Power

April 1, 1998
by Charlene Marietti
| Reprints

Just patients no more, healthcare consumers are changing the face of healthcare. Striving to become active members of the healthcare team, they are embracing new and innovative uses of technology to gain information, helping to build their own health records, voicing their demands and preferences and actively participating in policy making. As

the public becomes more involved, consumer informatics is growing, engaging the individual throughout his or her life cycle--through periods of wellness as well as bouts of acute illness and chronic diseases.

Long silent, today’s consumer is demanding more--more information, more choices and more involvement in policies and decision-making. Many are highly motivated, well educated and astute enough to leverage technology for personal benefit. Others struggle with literacy and place different kinds of demands on the healthcare system. The challenge to healthcare organizations is to bring individual consumers into the care team and to channel their personal interests and energy into improving care delivery and outcomes. Building the consumer/provider partnership will require new ways of envisioning the consumer and the development of new services.

Crowding the dance floor

Once holding a near-monopoly as purveyors of patient information, many providers are finding their position eroding. Information bombards the consumer from all fronts. Broadcast and print media, libraries, employers, health-related and community-based organizations and even Web-based clearinghouses are delivering information straight to the consumer. Government agencies have made it their mission to provide consumer health information through new technologies. Healthcare organizations may have cause for relief that someone else is sharing the information burden, but does this information explosion compromise the provider’s authority? Or challenge the credibility of the organization? Perhaps the more important question to ask is this: Should the phenomena be viewed as a window of opportunity?

According to a recent study conducted by KPMG Peat Marwick LLP, Montvale, N.J., and Northwestern University, Chicago, entitled "New Voices: Consumerism in Health Care," consumers are transforming all aspects of the healthcare industry. Richard D’Amaro, national managing partner of KPMG Peat Marwick, says, "Today, consumers who seek healthcare information are swamped by a sea of arcane data. Tomorrow, highly informed consumers will enjoy access to an explosion of useful information. They will rely on this information to make purchasing decisions and even render self care."

The rise of healthcare consumerism is fundamentally shifting competition in the industry, says Northwestern’s Teresa Waters, PhD, assistant director of the Institute for Health Services Research and Policy Studies. Providers and healthcare firms are gaining market share by targeting information directly to consumers. And consumers are hungry for information.

Public opinion surveys indicate that members of the baby boomers, and now Generation Xers, are far less willing to accept the status quo. As many as one-third of all queries to major search engines are healthcare-related. These public searches, including all aspects of health delivery, disease management, and disease- and medication-specific information, are expected to continue to expand as baby boomers age. If there is any doubt that this demographic group will be a demanding and vocal one consider for a moment the significant changes in obstetrical practices that resulted from their demands a quarter century ago when they were starting families.

Now, as then, consumers are unlikely to go it alone. They are achieving greater independence, but will need support from consumer-friendly organizations and companies. The opportunity to embrace the consumer as a partner of the care team is, in most cases, wide open. D’Amaro believes consumers are finding a voice that will ultimately be comparable to the voice they now have in the retail world. Competition is now being waged with consumer preferences in mind, he notes. "If you are a provider, payor, or supplier and not listening to you customers, your business is in peril." Healthcare organizations of the future will succeed by keeping the consumer topmost.

Partners in synch

Beyond changing demographics and personal education, there is another compelling reason why consumer expectations are evolving, says Patricia Brennan, RN, PhD, FAAN, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s not just that people have a thirst for information--healthcare has forced consumers to seek information. "We’ve given the consumer a new job; we must now give them new tools to go along with the new job. Patients are scared, they’re often alone and they have a real need for information. Our job as clinicians is to try to ensure that they get connected to the right set of information."