Consumerism in Healthcare


Blog post by Colin Hung

Over the past few weeks I’ve had hundreds of conversations with healthcare peers – a positive consequence of being at the #HIMSS17 conference and traveling for work for the past 6 weeks in a row. There was one topic that kept popping up – consumerism in healthcare (something I talked about in this interview prior to the start of HIMSS).

I find the concept of consumerism in healthcare fascinating. I am encouraged by the adoption of consumer best practices by healthcare organizations and HealthIT companies, yet I am discouraged at how healthcare has blindly adopted the patients-as-consumers analogy.

I love fact that many healthcare organizations have looked to the consumer world for inspiration on how to make patient experiences better. While at #HIMSS, for example, I counted no less than 10 vendors offering a check-in application where patients could register themselves and get a text when a doctor/nurse could see them. It’s not hard to imagine a day when waiting rooms are seen as quirks of history. The hospitality, restaurant and even automotive industries have had this technology for years. It’s encouraging to see healthcare finally adopting something similar.

Recently, I changed dentists. My long-time dentist retired and sold his practice to a fellow practitioner. I found this new person lacked basic bedside (teeth-side?) manner. She was abrupt, was ALWAYS critical of how well/not well I was taking care of my oral health and spent no more than 2 minutes in the room with me before breezing back to her office. So I did what any dissatisfied consumer would do, I went online and searched for a better option. I placed a lot of weight on the online reviews that were written by patients of other dentists and I eventually chose one that had 100+ positive reviews by various patients. My new dentist is amazing.

Clearly my behavior is similar to that of a healthcare consumer. But I believe that most choices in healthcare don’t work this way…and may never. For dentistry, I have many options in my area and I CHOOSE to be a dental patient/consumer. Plus, the services I receive from a dentist is fairly consistent from one dentist to another – cleaning, x-rays and whitening. I do not believe my dental experience translates broadly in healthcare. Anyone who has a chronic condition or is felling ill does not choose to be in that situation, it is forced upon them. A forced consumer is not really a consumer. As well, often there is limited choice of healthcare practitioners and where there is choice, there is very little information available to the individual in order to make an educated choice. For this and many other reasons, it is my opinion that it is flawed to use the patients-as-consumers analogy in healthcare. The healthcare market isn’t transparent enough for normal market forces to operate. Patients are patients.

Sachin H Jain wrote a thought-provoking article in fantastic article in Forbes that explains the fallacy of this analogy:

Over the past decade, an image of the “ideal” healthcare consumer has emerged. Armed with personal health data, ratings and rankings, and driven by financial skin in the game, the ideal healthcare consumer makes the healthcare system better by forcing healthcare providers to compete for her business. Healthcare organizations have pivoted to meet the needs of this ideal consumer and whole new businesses have emerged to help empower patients to manage their own care.

All of this is great—except for the fact that the current mental model of the healthcare consumer is, well, wrong.

Consumer-oriented thinking in healthcare often blindly applies insights from other consumer sectors—assuming that patients will apply the same approach to purchasing an Ikea futon or Toyota Prius to making healthcare decisions. Driven by rationality, they will price-shop, compare quality and reliably choose the highest-value option.

Jain goes on to say that there are four key important aspects of health-specific consumer behavior missing:

  1. Most sick people don’t actually like to shop for healthcare
  2. The sum of healthcare purchases doe not equal the parts
  3. One size does not fit all
  4. Healthcare is local – and it will stay that way

Although I think the patients-as-consumers model is flawed, I do believe that we can and should look to the consumer world for ideas. I would love to see Disney’s queue-handling make it into hospitals. I would also love to see the Ritz-Carlton approach to empowered guest service adopted by my more healthcare organizations. Can you imagine what would happen is we poured as much effort into “nudging” people to make healthier diet choices as we do pushing them to spend more money in a casino or in a store?

Join us on the next #hcldr chat, Tuesday March 7th at 8:30pm Eastern (GMT -5. for your local time click here) when we will be discussing consumerism in healthcare:

  • T1 Do you believe the patients-as-consumers thinking in healthcare is a positive analogy? Or do you see it leading us down a false path?
  • T2 Is there a standard practice in the consumer world that you would you like to see adopted in healthcare?
  • T3 Is there a consumer technology that you want to see adopted in healthcare?
  • T4 Is there an aspect of consumerism that you DO NOT want to see adopted in healthcare?


“Getting Consumerism Right in Healthcare”, Sachin H. Jain, Forbes, 1 October 2015,, accessed 5 March 2017

“The Problem with Consumerism in Healthcare”, Ken Congdon, HealthIT Outcomes, 1 April 2015,, accessed 5 March 2017

“6 Trends in an Era of Consumerism in Healthcare”, Bob Spoerl, Becker’s Hospital Review, 6 June 2012,, accessed 5 March 2017

“Population Health and the Rise of Consumerism”, Lee An Jarousse, Hospitals & Health Networks, 15 September 2015,, accessed 5 March 2017

“3 Ways Technology Can Help Treat Patients as Consumers”, W Roy Smythe MD, HealthcareIT News, 26 February 2016,, accessed 5 March 2017

“The Troube with Treating Patients as Consumers”, Augusta Meill and Gianna Ericson, Harvard Business Review, 9 January 2012,, accessed 5 March 2017

“Commentary: Healthcare still falling short by failing to treat patients as consumers”, Joesph Fifer, Modern Healthcare, 20 June 2015,, accessed 5 March 2017

“Are You a Patient or a Healthcare Consumer?”, Robert Pearl MD, Forbes, 15 October 2015,, accessed 5 March 2017

“Consumers vs patients: Healthcare’s biggest misunderstanding”, Akanksha Jayanthi, Becker’s Hospital Review, 18 February 2015,, accessed 5 March 2017

“Consumers vs patients: How healthcare leaders talk about the people they treat”, Akanksha Jayanthi, Becker’s Hospital Review, 5 May 2015,, accessed 5 March 2017

Image Credit

Some People – N Karim


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