In a recent class with the Nashville Health Care Council Fellows program, we learned about retail clinics and how they’re driving change in the healthcare industry. These retail clinics are helping to fuel one of the healthcare industry’s hottest buzz words right now: consumerism.

Healthcare as an industry is somewhat ironic: It touches all of us at one point or another, yet it lacks the true “consumer” model we see in so many other industries. In healthcare, people don’t buy products or services directly from a seller for a clear, fixed price. No – it’s far more complex.

What would a truly consumer-centric model look like? Take this example: A woman is experiencing chronic fatigue and wants to go to the doctor. So she takes to the Internet and researches a number of physicians based on quality ratings, online reviews and the price of an office visit. She chooses and visits the doctor, who recommends a series of blood tests. Again, the patient takes to the phone and the Internet and shops for the right laboratory based on her out-of-pocket cost.

It turns out the patient has an iron deficiency, and she revisits the doctor to talk about treatment. Together, they decide on a diet that will provide the appropriate levels of iron while maintaining her commitment to being a vegetarian.

But it doesn’t stop at the doctor’s visit. The doctor recommends an app where users can track their daily intake of food and drink, monitor the nutritional value of what they’re consuming and set daily goals for certain vitamins and minerals. The patient uses this app to meet her daily iron goals and keeps her doctor updated by sending him regular messages through her patient portal. Together, they successfully correct her iron deficiency, adjust her diet as needed and maintain healthy levels over time.

The key between where we are today and that kind of future is consumer education. To truly have a consumer model in healthcare, patients have to A) know that they have options; and B) know what those options are. That includes the option to “shop” for doctors or healthcare services based on cost and quality – which requires cost and quality transparency. That includes the option to be proactively involved in their own health decisions, working in partnership with their healthcare provider. And it includes the option to take an active role in managing their own health over time by engaging in wellness and prevention.

We’re not there yet, but the industry is shifting slowly but surely. Patients are at the heart of our future healthcare system – not just as patients, but as active consumers of healthcare.

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