The consumerization of health IT

Health IT vendors might benefit from teaching their customers means to truly leverage their purchased solutions to engage, influence and change consumer behaviors.

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Credit: Thinkstock

The annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference is health IT vendors’ Mecca. The HIMSS event this year attracted nearly 40,000 attendees to Chicago, and its giant exhibition halls in the McCormick Place were filled with more than 1,000 booths. The overall spirit at the event was buoyant and optimistic—and why not? The health IT industry has enjoyed several years of boom, thanks to health IT incentives and penalties from Uncle Sam.

I was one of the 40,000 visitors who strolled on the show floor, looking to spot themes and for signs of exciting innovations on the horizon. To my amazement, the health IT industry continues to excel at minting new buzzwords and spreading them like wildfire. When I first started covering the health IT market in the late 1990s, these fancy terms included “clinical decision support,” “Computerized Physician Order Entry (CPOE)” and “Picture Archiving and Communications System (PACS).” In the middle of the last decade, “electronic medical records (EMR),” “patient portal” and “health information exchanges (HIE)” were the staples. During the last couple of years, “meaningful use,” “interoperability” and “accountable care” seemed to be everywhere. This year, my show floor trail was shadowed by banners and wall posters marked with “population health” and “health analytics.”

I don’t blame exhibitors for employing these buzzwords to attract eyeballs and prove to their prospective customers that they are on top of trends. It’s all about marketing—I get it, and I use these buzzwords to screen which companies might be of interest to me. However, should we as an industry start thinking about marketing communications strategies in more consumer-friendly terms? Consumers are increasingly involved in the process of care delivery, and their interests and preferences are built upon their understanding of the services offered to them. Furthermore, consumers must understand new care concepts and trends in order to have confidence in their own care capabilities and role in the care process.

For example, although I understand the concept of “population health,” and use it frequently in my reports, the industry has no clear consensus about its definition. And, in practice, I question whether the design of programs and services truly reflect a consumer-centric approach. Furthermore, when communicating such a service or program to consumers, I am not sure whether care providers or third-party program vendors explain the details in ways that truly resonate with consumers' needs and wants.

Much of my experience at HIMSS confirmed these doubts. At this mega-show, exhibitors tried to showcase, impress and then sell their IT tools to care providers that will in turn use these tools to provide patient/consumer-focused services. However, vendors focused too much on their immediate customers and overlooked the fact that their customers’ success ultimately is their success as well. As I understand the current state of the healthcare service market, success of a “population health” program can’t be accomplished without consumers’ active participation and engagement. Instead of just using buzzwords and product demos to hard-sell their solutions, health IT vendors might benefit from teaching their customers means to truly leverage their purchased solutions to engage, influence and change consumer behaviors.

Perhaps I’m using a broad stroke to paint an overly unfavorable picture. I may have missed some great companies doing an excellent job not only of teaching care providers how to use their solutions but also of helping them build programs that truly benefit consumers’ health while also making consumers’ lives easier and more convenient.

But from my research and conversations with industry insiders, I’ve concluded that the majority of healthcare service providers are still learning to adapt their business practices from provider-centric to consumer-centric. Providers need help up and down the value chain; they need education and best-practice advice about how to build a “population health” program and how to leverage “health analytics” to provide better, more effective and more consumer-centric care.

When speaking to a vendor either on the phone or on a show floor—such as at HIMSS—my angle is always from a consumer vantage point. I evaluate whether vendors can articulate their solution’s benefits from a consumer perspective. In most cases at HIMSS, I found vendors could speak fluently about solution features and their benefits to care providers, but fell short on how consumers at the care receiving end can truly benefit. These sales strategies and tactics worked fine during the last two decades, but when health IT solutions begin to be deployed at different care touch points where consumer experience matters and even is critical to success, vendors’ sales approaches need adjustment.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I strolled to the Walgreens booth at HIMSS and heard Adam Pellegrini present Walgreens’ approach, which includes partner solutions that Walgreens is integrating into its digital health platform. I knew Adam was an eloquent speaker from his keynote at my company’s Connected Health Summit event last September, but what separated Adam’s pitch from other health IT vendors’ at HIMSS was his emphasis on consumer experience. Adam talked up solutions from partners such as MDLive, WebMD, PatientsLikeMe, and showcased how Walgreens tries to leverage its consumer portal and retail stores to build an omnichannel consumer experience for their health and wellness needs. I was enlightened and felt refreshed as a consumer while listening; as an analyst, I wished my other booth experiences would have been as invigorated and engaging.

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Will all buzzwords and industry jargon fade away in healthcare? I wouldn’t count on it. But consumerism in healthcare, as I see it, will force health IT vendors to change their sales strategy and become more end-user oriented. This would be good news for care providers too.

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