Consumers are slow to embrace health-care changes

It’s a brave new world for health care consumers. Patients are faced with an avalanche of new technologies and developments that are supposed to revolutionize the way they manage their health care.  

 But according to a study released last week from the PwC Health Research Institute, the revolution is slow in coming.  “Most [consumers] don’t shop for care, ask about prices, email with their clinicians or use telehealth options. Most don’t send their physicians data from their activity trackers. Most remain skeptical of the value of electronic medical record systems despite their ubiquity in examination rooms,” says the report, entitled “Surviving Seismic Change: Winning a Piece of the $5 trillion U.S. Health EcoSystem.”

This is happening amid the backdrop of dramatically rising deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. Workers are paying deductibles that are 50 percent higher than they were five years ago, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.  That extra “skin in the game” was supposed to encourage health care consumers to become better shoppers in an effort to lower their medical bills, which, in turn, would health lower health care costs in general.

So why the disconnect in the pace of change between health care developments and consumer behavior?  These details from the PwC Health Research Institute survey may shed some light on why health care consumers act the way they do.

Price shopping.  Despite the huge rise in out-of-pocket costs, most consumers do not ask about prices.  Only a third of consumers asked how much they would pay for a visit to a health care provider before the visit occurred, while 37 percent asked for the price of a prescription before filling it.  Health care consumers and providers have always been reluctant to talk price, said Vaughn Kauffman, healthcare new entrants leader at PwC. He points out that this year’s statistics show more willingness to talk about fees than last year’s study, in which just 10 percent of consumers said they had contacted different doctors and health systems to ask about price.

Electronic communications. Emails and video visits with health care providers are supposed to help keep office and ER visits to a minimum and create better rapport with health care providers. But only a quarter of consumers say they have ever communicated with a physician, nurse or other caregiver via email and only one in 10 has texted with a clinician, according to the study. Even fewer, just 1 percent of consumers, said they had a video visit with a primary care doctor in the last year. To be fair, this isn’t necessarily proof that patients are reluctant to try these new communications, Kauffman explained. “Many providers are also reluctant to use them for a variety of reasons,” he said.  

Tracking health data. Lot of apps and monitors are now equipped to send vital health information, such as blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate and other information directly from a patient’s home to the doctor’s office. But only 20 percent of patients use wearable technology of any sort, according to 2014 PwC data.  Exciting as the new data trackers are, implementation has been slow, said Kauffman. What’s more, this year’s study found that patients with at least one chronic condition are less likely to use all sorts of new health care technologies and communications even though they are heavy users of the health system and potentially have the most to gain from these developments. One explanation:  Patients with chronic conditions are more likely to be older and perhaps less comfortable with technology in general, Kauffman said.

Despite the lack of concrete action, the PwC study reveals consumer enthusiasm for some changes. For instance, 45 percent of consumers surveyed said they were interested in using some type of telehealth service in exchange for lower insurance costs. And 43 percent have used retail health clinics, with the vast majority being satisfied with the experience, according to the study.  

“The health care industry needs to focus on consumer awareness,” Kauffman said. “Other industries have done a tremendous job of leveraging data and information, but with health care, often consumers don’t know what the new technologies are. Consumers are in the center of the equation, but the health care industry hasn’t figured out yet how that translates into delivering services.”