When the 2013 International CES opened this past January in Las Vegas, the usual high-tech toys and gadget geeks were in attendance. But tucked into that crowd was a newer market, one that could someday compete with the latest in high-definition TV or souped-up cars for prominence: the healthcare consumer.
From the two-day Digital Health Summit to the section of one exhibit hall devoted to personal health devices to the healthcare booths at nearly every major vendor’s display, healthcare is pushing its way into the spotlight. And it’s being driven by payers and large providers who are struggling to curtail excessive costs and change ineffective and outdated delivery methods.
“We are now trying to turn a battleship around” to get the nation’s healthcare system to incentivize wellness and prevention, said Reed Tuckson, MD, vice president and chief of medical affairs for UnitedHealth Group. Speaking to a packed room at the Digital Health Summit, he said America’s healthcare system is facing “a huge problem of a runaway freight train of costs,” with no means of funding the increase in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security budgets to cover the nation’s increase in chronic diseases and aging-in-place residents and a projected decrease in healthcare providers.
Added to that, he said, are these statistics: 21 percent of Americans still smoke, with 1,000 kids a day becoming addicted to tobacco; and 26 percent of Americans say they get no exercise whatsoever.
The strategy being pushed by UnitedHealth and so many other providers: Make healthcare a personal responsibility, and work toward changing people’s attitudes and behaviors. Once people care about health, they’ll adopt healthier habits, which in turn will reduce the need for medical attention and cut down on unnecessary visits to doctors and hospitals.
Payers and providers like UnitedHealth, Kaiser Permanente and Intermountain, to name just a few, see mobile healthcare as the means to changing the healthcare paradigm, so they’re investing heavily in mHealth and telehealth programs and tools. In a separate CES panel discussion on telehealth, John F. Jesser, vice president of provider engagement strategy at WellPoint, said patients are also pushing for those changes, wanting their doctors to be more available and ready with information.
Leslie Kelly Hall, senior vice president for Healthwise, called patient-centered healthcare “a pivotal change in healthcare,” because it’s forcing providers to take a look at how they deliver healthcare and find ways to improve the experience. They now have to deal with patients who want and have a say in their healthcare decisions, she said.
“There is an emerging change and I think what’s going to drive this is mobile access,” she said.
Peter Tippett, MD, PhD, vice president of Verizon’s Connected Healthcare Solutions business, added another player to the mix: the business owner. While payers are leading the health and wellness charge, he said, large employers are bearing the brunt of high healthcare costs in employee insurance programs, so they’re eager to see new ideas that will cut those costs and improve the health of their workforce.
Those ideas include mobile medical devices that capture vital signs and other data and transmit them to caregivers and physicians, who in turn can monitor a patient’s health at all times and intervene before a health issue becomes serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital. And they include kiosks in the workplace, the market, the mall, or the pharmacy, giving people an opportunity to connect via telemedicine with a doctor and answer questions that might otherwise call for a visit to the doctor’s office and a half-day off from work.
And physicians are getting into the act as well. In central Washington state, an area populated by large orchards and a large percentage of immigrant (and underserved) laborers, Malcolm Butler of Columbia Valley Community Health is launching a social media platform developed by WellFx to communicate and push health information to hundreds of young, pregnant women who would otherwise avoid the doctor’s office. The idea, said Butler, CVCH’s medical director, is to get these women to care about their health, and in turn take steps to avoid complications in their pregnancies that would otherwise lead to hospitalizations.
Butler admitted that social media isn’t the right platform for all healthcare issues, but it can reach into a certain population better than the public service announcement on television or the poster in the local library. And if it reaches that targeted population, the reduction in unnecessary medical costs will be welcome.
“If it doesn’t fly in the obstetrical population, then it’s not going to work anywhere else,” Butler said, pointing out that an improperly managed social network for people with chronic pain might just end up giving them a better means of selling their drugs to each other. “But we see the potential with this. We believe it makes sense, and we can make it work, and if we have to stumble down that path, we will.”