Consumerism Turning Patients into Informed Shoppers

By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

July 16, 2012 - In another step toward engaging patients in making informed healthcare decisions, Consumer Reports has rated U.S. hospitals for safety, encouraging people to shop for hospitals the same way they shop for cars, electronics and appliances--by studying and comparing the ratings and rankings.

Shopping for Hospitals
Josh Ratner said ratings recognize performance but are not the motivator for providing safe, quality care.

“Consumerism in healthcare is here to stay and continues to grow in popularity,” said Josh Ratner, chief strategy officer at HealthAlliance in Kingston, N.Y. Its Benedictine Hospital earned the second highest safety score among 120 New York State hospitals ranked in the August 2012 issue of Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports combined six measures submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The categories included are infections, readmissions, overuse of scanning, communication about new medications and discharge, complications and mortality.

Leah Binder, president and CEO of The Leapfrog Group, which also measures hospital safety and quality in an annual survey, thanked Consumer Reports for publishing its ratings and urging people to consider the ratings when selecting a hospital. The two organizations use different criteria and offer different perspectives, but both advance transparency and offer consumers an opportunity to learn more.

“Greater consumer engagement is critical,” Binder said. “We have significant problems in our healthcare system, and they are not going to be solved until consumers become more involved.”

Ratner and Binder agreed that consumers are not likely to be confused by multiple ratings and rankings of hospital data, such as, Leapfrog Group and now Consumer Reports, because they are already used to shopping for cars and other major purchases that way.

The bigger challenge is for people to shop for a hospital when they need care.

Shopping for Hospitals
Leah Binder called greater consumer engagement critical to healthcare.

Binder has seen an increase in the number of people coming to the Leapfrog Group website looking for information, after consumer media covered its most recent survey results. She indicated the world is becoming more transparent, with reviews and information available on the Internet, and there is no turning back for healthcare providers.

“There are new levels of expectation as people expect to have information about the doctors and nurses that care for them,” Binder said. “Healthcare is nowhere near as transparent as other industries, but they should buckle their seat belts--because it is coming.”

Tony Cotrupi, president and leader of the health practice at PARTNERS+simons, a brand communications company specializing in the health sector in Boston, said the “growing consumerism trend in healthcare represents a profound opportunity for providers and plans to deepen their engagement and communications with these consumers, and the competition to reach them is becoming more fierce.”

Hospitals spend billions of dollars on advertising, he said. To appeal to consumers, Cotrupi offers three recommendations for hospitals: (1) be accessible, in tone, language, approach and practical logistics; (2) be authentic, showing respect to consumers as human beings; and (3) be trustworthy, matching promises with the actual experiences patients have with the organization.

“Healthcare has been slow to evolve compared to other industries,” Ratner said. “In other industries, consumers have driven how products were developed and provided.”

Ratner expects people will begin comparing hospitals as more of the money for health services comes from their wallet--particularly with high-deductible health plans--and not insurers. Providers of cash-based healthcare, such as eyeglasses and teeth whitening, have branched into direct-to-consumer marketing and offering deals, Ratner reported, but hospitals have focused more on quality and safety. Consumerism is not going to change that commitment to excellence, he added.

“It helps aid how we communicate that to a broader market,” said Ratner, adding that the Consumer Reports ratings are valuable, because it’s a third-party endorsement from a source people are already familiar with and trust, whereas many people have not heard of The Joint Commission or other industry standard setters.

“The Consumer Reports endorsement is a representation of the quality we offer but not the motivation for why we offer that care,” Ratner said.

A giant in consumer marketing, Kimberly-Clark Health Care of Roswell, Ga., has begun using its experience in reaching consumers to raise awareness about hospital-acquired infections (HAI) and ways consumers can prevent them, such as asking clinicians to wash their hands before rendering care.

Shopping for Hospitals
Alex Hodges said that patients will need to become more accountable for their healthcare choices in the future.

“I don’t think there will be a backlash, because most hospitals recognize there is a financial incentive to reduce infection rates,” said Alex Hodges, a senior director of global strategic marketing for Kimberly-Clark Health Care. “The No. 1 way to prevent those events from happening and affecting a provider’s bottom line is washing their hands.”

The Kimberly-Clark campaign, called Safe Care, is but one example of efforts to motivate consumers to take more responsibility for their own care. The Joint Commission’s Speak Up program is another.  Both campaign provide materials for healthcare providers to share with their patients.

“The future of healthcare is about greater accountability that we all need to take, including patients to take care of themselves, make the right choices about where to go for the best level of care, and how to get home as quickly as possible,” Hodges said. “Everyone will be bearing more of the cost, including patients. Patients will become more empowered and will take a more active role in decision making.”