The consumerization of healthcare

One hears a lot these days about the trend of “Consumerism” in health care. The term has become so broadly applied, in my mind, that it makes me wonder whether anyone really knows what it means. As a classically trained consumer packaged goods marketer who works in health care, I am particularly sensitive to the use and misuse of this term. To me, it means one and only one thing: consumers have choice. And there is one and only one implication for health care providers and insurers: you better be ready to compete.

Marketing in health care institutions has always been more “marketing communications” than “strategic marketing.” Strategic marketing, when done effectively, drives the growth of the enterprise. Yes, the advertising, brochures, newsletters, etc. are an important part of the mix. But as strategic marketers know, there is little point in communicating an offer if the offer is not yet defined. Strategic marketers define the offer – the products, services, experience and, most importantly, benefits – that uniquely and best satisfy the needs, wants, desires and aspirations of their target consumers.

Consumers are at the center of everything strategic marketers do. Not a day goes by that we don’t ask ourselves, “How will this meet a need for our target consumer?” We never talk about “Consumerism.” We talk only about the consumer’s needs, motivators, behaviors and journey. We do everything in our power to make sure the consumer selects our product, not the competitor’s.

I could not be more thrilled that “patient experience,” “segmenting patient populations” and “consumer health care shopping” are topics being discussed. I think it is a major step forward that pricing and quality information are becoming available (albeit slowly and incompletely) to presumably inform consumer choice. However, I’m not comfortable with the term, “consumerism.” I worry that this misses the centrality of the consumer and the understanding that the consumer’s needs, wants, etc. should determine the products and services that providers and insurers offer. Most of all, I worry that it downgrades the emergence of consumer choice in health care as a passing trend.

My wish for health care providers and insurers is that they see the emergence of consumer choice as an opportunity, not a threat. Among health systems, I’m hearing more threat than opportunity (e.g., “What business am I going to lose because my prices are higher?”) The big opportunity for health systems, as they become increasingly motivated to hold onto their patients for all levels of care, is to realize that they are competing for primary care consumers in the exact same way that consumer packaged goods manufacturers compete for consumers. They need to design the health care “product” that best satisfies the needs, wants, desires and aspirations of their target consumers, and be ready to influence each prospective consumer of its unique and compelling value.

So what would I call this trend instead of “Consumerism”? I’d call it “Competition.” Health care, welcome, at last, to the real world where you win based on your ability to compel consumers to choose you above your competition.

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