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The consumer revolution in health care

How would you react if someone told you that a revolution was on the way? Some of us would do everything in our power to get out of the way. But others would be glad to see an old way of doing things replaced by a new way.

There have been several revolutions in healthcare. The professionalisation of general practice definitely counts, as would the discovery of penicillin, anaesthesia and the health benefits of hand washing. The latest revolution on the horizon is different for one very important reason: it performs the radical act of turning patients into consumers.

The consumer revolution in healthcare is important enough that we must be careful with our definitions. What is it, and why is it happening? It can be traced to three main causes. The first is technological improvements. Internet connections are fast and secure enough to connect patients with their healthcare providers. Home tests enable accurate and rapid self-diagnosis. Wearable devices are practical and collect data that we can use to make informed decisions about our health.  

The second reason is that, as much of the world has become richer, the burden is shifting from communicable diseases like smallpox and influenza to non-communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes. We have gone from suffering diseases of pestilence and poverty to diseases of abundance: too many calories, rather than too few. This is obviously not true for much of the world. But where it is true, people want the ability to take preventative control of their health.

The third reason is ageing populations and their contributions to rising healthcare costs, especially in the developed world. Declining ratios of working-age to non-working-age people are increasing the cost of care while reducing tax revenues.

These are the causes fuelling the revolution. So what does the revolution look like? According to Peter Birch, Founder and CEO of Talking HealthTech, in comments provided exclusively to HPG, changes to healthcare resemble the “Uberisation” we are witnessing in many other industries: digital-first, consumer-centric, delivered where and when consumers want it. It’s devices and data. But it’s also a revolution of mindsets: changing relationships between doctors and patients, and those same patients learning to think of themselves as informed consumers.

Asked if Australia’s healthcare system could look different in a decade, Peter is honest. “We saw transformational change in the past few years out of necessity during COVID, so we demonstrated it can be done.” That isn’t quite the same, however, as saying that it will be done. No revolution is inevitable: there are always people fighting for the new order and the old guard. According to Peter, many healthcare providers will persist with the status quo. It will be up to the entrepreneurs – the doctors, the developers, the decision-makers, and the consumers – who have “the appetite and strategic vision to adopt more emerging and modern technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the blockchain who will make the revolution happen.

Peter sees progress here in Australia, even if it is uneven. “Generally,” he says, “more vendors are designing with patient needs in mind and all good intentions, by building in patient portals and apps in an attempt to give a consumer more control over their healthcare.” A lack of interoperability, which drives up costs and drives down convenience, remains a concern. Peter believes we should place more importance on developing common standards so that “patient information can flow through different systems that are used throughout the patient lifecycle.”

Accelerating progress toward a future where Australians have the ability to make data-driven, technology-enabled decisions about their health while still enjoying the benefits of our excellent hospitals and primary care systems will, Peter believes, require the participation of two important groups: GPs and governments. “Many GPs do well at keeping the needs of a patient front of mind,” he says. However, there is still “a large cohort of GPs however who have forced patients to come into clinics to see a clinician now, instead of embracing telehealth services when its clinically appropriate.” As arguably the most important link in our healthcare system, they will need to see the value of the consumer revolution.

As for governments, Peter believes they have a very important role to play – and one that’s bigger than just “getting out of the way”. NSW, for example, is implementing a “digital agenda” complete with “digital drivers’ licences, birth certificates, blue books for children’ health records and more.” Governments are not only capable of such innovation, but big enough to create opportunities and incentives that entrepreneurs will use to create the next big breakthrough.

It will require more billion dollar ideas, and for more people to adjust their mindset, for the consumer revolution to be complete. In the meantime, Peter has this to say for people aspiring to be part of it: whatever you do, whatever you hope to build, “always keep the patient at the centre of care.”