Changing Health Care – Consumer Empowerment is Key

There is a sea change underway in today’s health care system and people with disabilities could be winners as a […]

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There is a sea change underway in today’s health care system and people with disabilities could be winners as a result. Yesterday’s passive patients have become today’s internet-savvy consumers, plugged in, well-informed, and demanding more from their doctors. We’re forcing a reluctant industry to respond to meet the needs of consumers with disabilities.

Over 200 members of the health care community gathered July 13 in Washington D.C. to discuss the changing role of the consumer in today’s health care system. Co-sponsored by the Minnesota-based Medtronic Foundation and Healtheon/WebMD, an internet company connecting physicians and consumers, the day-long “Patient Summit” brought together consumers, providers, advocates and policymakers.

The message delivered was a powerful one: consumers are tired of a health care environment that doesn’t meet their needs.

“Americans love their doctors and they love technology,” said Dr. Regina Herzlinger, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, “but they hate the lack of support and the inconvenience” found in today’s health care environment.

A recent survey shows that public satisfaction rates for both managed care and health insurance companies have plummeted over the last three years, dipping to levels just above tobacco companies which rank dead last.

As a result, individuals are looking elsewhere for answers to their health problems. Increasingly, these solutions are what have traditionally been labeled “alternative” therapies. Today, these services, such as massage, acupuncture, and meditation, are called “complementary.” Often not covered by commercial insurance plans, people are paying out of pocket for these services, and are doing so in record numbers.

“These treatment options recognize the needs of the whole person, not just an illness or condition,” said Dr. David Eisenberg, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the new director of its Division for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies. Why have these therapies become so popular? Because traditional medicine has failed to meet the needs of a more demanding consumer.

Historically, the $1 trillion health industry has not responded well to the needs of its customers. While the retail industry has shifted to superstores and websites offering one-stop shopping for a time-strapped buying public, health care has not. You can pick up a copy of Consumer Reports to compare the quality of cars, televisions, or toasters, but if you’re shopping for a doctor or an HMO, no such tool exists.

“How come you can buy just about any product over the phone at midnight, but you have to lose half a day of work just to see a doctor for a minor illness?” Herzlinger asks in her book Market Driven Health Care. “Are we doomed to have an unsystematic health care system that keeps us waiting, provides all too little information and support…and pays outrageous fees to those who deny us the services we have paid for and need?”

The answer, she says, is no, and technology is playing a key role. The Internet is giving Americans unprecedented access to health information. Last year 70 million adults searched the World Wide Web for health information. These ‘cyberchondriacs’ are coming to doctors’ appointments armed with online versions of medical journal articles and chat room advice, adding to the wave of consumer empowerment. Technology may help, but it won’t solve what ails the current health system.

“The Internet will enhance the physician-patient relationship, said Jeff Arnold, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Healtheon/WebMD, “it will not replace it.”

Arnold sees the Internet as a tool to connect consumers with the right health care provider, provide comparisons among therapies and professionals, and allow direct communication between the consumer and the health care team.

And with that concept of ‘team’ is where the disability community enters the picture.

Individuals with disabilities often have complex medical needs that are unmet in the current fragmented world of health care. We need a coordinated team of providers that treat not just our symptoms but our minds and spirits as well. As Medtronic President Bill George said, “We don’t have health insurance coverage in this country. We have disease insurance.” The health system today treats our conditions and the symptoms stemming from our diagnosis or type of disability. It doesn’t give us access to the preventive tools and complementary options necessary to keep us well and living as independently as possible.

In short, the disabled community needs integrated care that will incorporate the best of traditional medicine, complementary treatments, and the promises of technology. Integrative care empowers and gives voice to the consumer. It recognizes the need to treat the whole person, not just the occasional problems.

While much improvement is needed, there is progress being made. More and more health plans are paying for complementary services. HealthPartners, one of Minnesota’s largest insurers, has launched a large Web-based information system to allow consumers better understand their benefits and options. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that 22 of the nation’s largest insurance companies, insuring over 100 million Americans, combined to launch a set of initiatives to make their services more consumer-friendly. That the nation’s leading biotechnology firm would host such a conference is also an encouraging sign. In the world of health care, consumers are moving from the back seat to the driver’s seat. And if we continue to raise our voices to demand better services, health care all of us, disabled and non-disabled alike, can only get better.

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