Heather Fernandez is the CEO and co-founder of Solv, an app that shifts the power to patients by delivering everyday healthcare on demand.
According to a nationwide survey conducted in 2017, that was the average wait time for a doctor appointment across 15 major American cities. In a world where we can hail a car in minutes and order same-day delivery grocery delivery with a few taps on a smartphone, providers of healthcare services in America remain entrenched in old, inefficient and unfriendly service practices. It’s one of the last industries to move fully into the digital age.
But the situation is changing fast. Telemedicine sustained a staggering 3,800% increase over its pre-Covid baseline, eliminating the need for many in-person doctor visits and significantly reducing patients’ wait times, often to mere minutes. Where in-person visits have remained necessary, online check-in apps have radically reduced the time and pain of registration and waiting room procedures. And where ongoing treatment or follow-up is required, remote monitoring technology has further increased patient convenience. There’s no question that the consumerization of healthcare was accelerated by the pandemic. The more important question is will it last?
It undoubtedly will. As they did in other industries, patients are (finally!) flipping the healthcare demand dynamic. There are three forces at work here, and the momentum they have created is real.
1. Patients are now less patient.
Whether we’re pre-ordering our coffee on the way to Starbucks or listening to whatever we want whenever we want on Spotify, Americans have grown accustomed to “life on-demand.”
Millennials and Gen Z have higher digital expectations and are more active consumers of information online — and now expect the same consumer-focused convenience from healthcare. Only 66% of Millennials have a primary care provider, as compared to 78% of Gen X and 85% of Baby Boomers. They are twice as likely as Boomers to use telemedicine and three times as likely to use wearable technology. This generational shift means that the pressure for healthcare to consumerize will only grow in time. As these generations grow into their roles as America’s new core consumers, healthcare organizations that fail to meet them where they are will simply cease to exist.
2. Tech companies are now health companies.
Over the past few years, no less than 1,000 technology startups have entered the healthcare market, with many of them focused on digitizing the patient journey. Besides telemedical consultations and asynchronous chat, there are startups in home healthcare, direct-to-consumer lab testing, wearable diagnostic and monitoring devices and digital health record management. Total investment in digital healthcare for 2021 is on track to reach about $30 billion — a four-fold increase from just two years ago. Tech giants like Amazon, Apple, and Google — who, needless to say, know their stuff when it comes to consumerization — are also dogpiling into the healthcare industry, driving the consumer-focused innovation and efficiency that Silicon Valley is famous for.
The tech-driven consumerization of day-to-day health is perhaps most obvious in the form of wearables and daily-utility consumer apps related to their use — from health tracking via Oura Ring and WHOOP to home fitness with Peloton and on-the-go meditation with Headspace. According to Rock Health’s 2020 Digital Health Consumer Adoption Report, 43% of respondents reported owning a wearable in 2020 (up from 33% in 2019). The same report noted that 66% of consumers who started using a wearable for the first time during the pandemic use it to manage a diagnosed health condition, proving consumer adoption of wearables is expanding beyond everyday health maintenance into chronic condition management.
3. Doctors are seeing the benefits, too.
Doctors go to school to care for people, but somewhere along the way, they often get bogged down with charts, billing, scheduling and administrative tasks that detract from actual patient care. As consumerized digital health improves that workflow, both patients and medical providers will continue to see benefits. Of more than 1,500 AMA doctors and other healthcare professionals surveyed across the United States, 72-83% (variable according to geography) said that telemedicine improved the timeliness of care. Additionally, 45-53% said it improved the financial health of their practice. And most importantly, 45-56% reported that their own work satisfaction was improved by engagement in digital healthcare practices. Will consumerization completely take over healthcare?
Going forward, two things will determine how fast the consumerization of healthcare comes to fruition: the ability of technology to deliver a superior healthcare interaction and the resolution of outstanding privacy concerns. The first piece continues to be propelled forward by Covid-19, with both patients and doctors embracing digital healthcare. The second piece, which requires getting health data out of silos, resolving regulatory constraints and protecting health records from bad actors, remains a work-in-progress.
Eventually, digital access to healthcare will become fully integrated into conventional channels of provider-patient interaction. Healthcare consumerization will release much of the pressure that afflicts the industry today, across human and financial resources. This will ultimately benefit patients straining under the unmanageable cost of American healthcare as well as overburdened and understaffed providers.
And that’s something well worth the wait.