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At Your Service

April 17, 2007
by Mark Hagland
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As consumer-driven healthcare shifts into a higher gear, organizations are putting the patient first.

What the folks at Omaha-based Alegent Health are doing could provide a solid page in a playbook for the consumer-driven healthcare of the future. After senior management at the seven-hospital integrated health system that serves southeastern Nebraska and southwestern Iowa had committed to a strategy of consumer-centeredness and hospital pricing transparency — and after CEO Wayne Sensor had publicly committed the organization to doing so within one year — Alegent staff built the first online consumer calculator for hospital procedure prices in the country.

While a handful of organizations nationwide already offer static price-lookup data on their Web sites, the Alegent Health people went further. They decided to use technology conceived internally (then co-developed with the Solvang, Calif.-based portals vendor Medseek) that allows patients to enter information on their particular health insurers and plans. Patients get back very specific data on their co-pays, out-of-pocket costs, and costs to their insurers, for a range of medical and surgical procedures.

The pricing-information solution, for which a patent is pending, is not only unique, but a harbinger of things to come, say executives of Alegent Health (a system sponsored by the Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives and the Omaha-based Immanuel Health Systems, a Lutheran hospital system).

"We had a common vision: to engage people in their healthcare and connect people with their payment as a tool for achieving that," says senior vice president and chief financial officer Scott Wooten. "And we turned that vision over to a group of people who were not in the executive suite, and we asked them to put together a plan. They did so in spades."

Though the development of the tool was complex and somewhat challenging, the development work was completed within 12 months and the program went live in January, with availability to at least 75 percent of Alegent consumers expected by April.

Senior vice president and CIO Ken Lawonn agrees with Wooten that there were challenges in developing the MyCost solution, but he says that the end result has absolutely been worth the investment of time, money and effort.

Ken LawonnThe initiative has also evolved out of an organizational culture that is strongly grounded in solid strategic planning processes, processes that produce results that make sense for the whole organization. So much so, Lawonn says, that an Alegent-developed two-and-a-half-day strategic planning process that has been used in diverse contexts (the Alegent folks call it their "decision accelerator process") was applied a little over a year ago in IT planning, and continues to move forward the kind of planning that spawned the MyCost tool.

"One of the keys," he says, "is that you have to be forward-looking. You have to think about things more from a consumer perspective, as healthcare becomes more consumer-oriented. Think about how people shop for hotels and airlines. We need to try to make healthcare more like that."

"One of the keys," he says, "is that you have to be forward-looking. You have to think about things more from a consumer perspective, as healthcare becomes more consumer-oriented. Think about how people shop for hotels and airlines. We need to try to make healthcare more like that."

An abundance of initiatives

Nationwide, more and more senior executives at hospitals, physician organizations, and integrated health systems are beginning to think like Alegent's leaders, finding new ways to develop patient services that will differentiate their organizations from local market competitors and engage patients and consumers in new ways. Industry experts agree that access, convenience, improved service and satisfaction, and enhanced provider efficiency will all be crucial to patient care organizations as they compete for volume and market share in the emerging healthcare marketplace.

In turn, CIOs of patient care organizations are increasingly finding themselves helping to lead complex, challenging, rewarding initiatives around these new kinds of services, services that are tied to their organizations'strategic market goals.

Among the many examples emerging across the country:

  • At the six-hospital, Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System, executives and managers already have more than 110,000 patients enrolled in the system's patient portal, according to Bruce Muma, M.D., chief medical officer at the system's West Bloomfield Hospital, and Pamela Landis, the health system's director of Web services. In addition to providing patients with the capability to request prescription renewals, obtain laboratory and other test results, and request physician appointments, patients at four of the system's medical centers are able to engage in e-visits with physicians. The e-visits are of two types — one in which a patient can get rapid response from a clinician on an urgent, but not emergent, condition, and the other in which the patients with chronic conditions regularly provide essential health data such as blood pressure, blood sugars, etc., to their physicians, and receive feedback online. In this, they also use Medseek as their solutions vendor.

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