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Impatient patients and Dr AI: consumerisation of healthcare and what it means for the NHS


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What do Amazon, a remote sexual health testing provider and a centre for reproductive health have in common? They are all, by their own admission ‘customer obsessed’, meaning everything they do is focused on creating the best possible experience for the end user. ‘Healthcare’ and ‘consumer’ are not often found in the same sentence here in the UK, where our lifelong love affair with the NHS has meant that historically we’ve been expected to take the care given and be grateful. But all that is changing: patients are starting to expect, even demand, more accessible, convenient and high quality service, and providers will need to adapt to succeed.

 

Last week saw the first in our ‘Future of Healthcare’ events, a new series of ZPB roundtables bringing together senior leaders in healthcare to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing our sector. We had a fantastic turn out and some brilliant speakers, resulting in a lively, engaged and sometimes heated debate on the topic of ‘consumerisation of healthcare’. Here’s our key takeaways from the discussion:

 

What is driving the rise in consumerisation of healthcare?

 

There are a number of social, economic and technological changes that have driven consumerism in healthcare.  These include:

 

·       Increased access to information

·       Technological advancements

·       Personalised and precision medicine

·       Changing patient and consumer expectations

·       Policy and regulatory changes

·       Patient advocacy

 

These trends are happening globally and will have an impact on markets and health economies worldwide, but there are a number of local drivers too. These include NHS waiting lists and rising demand for care, leaving providers with no choice but to adapt, along with increased acceptance and use of private care driving up patient expectations.

 

So what does this look like in reality?  What do consumers want from their healthcare providers?  ZPB consumer research looked at the key factors driving decision making when selecting appropriate care. Surprisingly, regulator ratings and CQC scores don’t really feature.  Review sites (Trustpilot) are the main emphasis, and our insight shows time and time again the power of a personal recommendation. These are small, but important changes that a customer-centric organisation needs to understand and respond to.

 

Ruth Poole, the CEO of Preventx, understands this implicitly: “people who use our service expect the highest standards and tell us when we don’t get it right, we’re very responsive to our customers – and it makes our service better”.  Ruth has made her career creating new models of delivering healthcare in ways that suit people – rather than the old ways of healthcare providers. Preventx has successfully disrupted public sector sexual health diagnostics by allowing consumers to order sexual health tests via the post and send them straight to the lab, with results texted within days.  The digital and remote testing service is reducing stigma and widening access.

 

Tech both drives and supports consumer demand. In the mostly private fertility sector, Dr Teodora Popaa geneticist specialising in IVF is passionate about the how the application of artificial intelligence in IVF and women's health is going to disrupt the sector. At her newly-opened AI-led fertility clinic Avenues, AI is being used to monitor embryos and capture actionable data, which has helped drive the success of IVF up. It has also resulted in more satisfied patients, who are able to use an app to view their embryos and data in real time – meaning they feel more in control of their fertility journey. Says Popa: “Perhaps paradoxically, AI has made patient care more personal, by streamlining processes and freeing up clinician time to spend with them. It means our processes are really held to account.” Rather than faceless robots removing human interaction, could AI actually be the key to unlocking more empathetic, person-centred healthcare?

 

But will it work more widely in the NHS?

 

As patients and consumers, clinicians and care administrators we surely welcome consumer-thinking in healthcare. And yet, the NHS still seems to fear it.  We don’t want to give people too much information, we sigh at the ‘expert patient’ turning up at the GP surgery.  We criticise the independent sector for picking up NHS patients; and we fear the cost of the rising demand. There are clearly some concerns to be addressed, but the shift is happening whether we like it or not – and how providers respond will be crucial to their survival.

 

Many of these concerns are valid; for example fears around driving health inequalities. This shift to a more consumer model is being spearheaded by the private sector, and even within the NHS there are serious questions around digital and health literacy and associated social challenges presenting barriers to accessing newer models of care. But we have to start somewhere, and building a solid evidence base is critical to driving adoption of new models across the health service, and eventually raising the bar for everyone.

 

In addition, does the NHS have the infrastructure and expertise to keep up? At the moment, probably not, but again evidence will be key in bringing about this change. When we look at other sectors (retail, travel, banking) the act of simplifying access to services and the ability to engage with them, has ultimately driven down cost, but there is a significant transformation process that needs to happen to meet this. 

 

There is no doubt that these innovations are democratising healthcare, and the potential for improving clinical and experiential outcomes in limitless. Consumerisation represents a seismic shift in how we experience healthcare and could be the gateway to more equitable care which puts patients first.


By Hannah Ingham, Senior Account Director at ZPB

 

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