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Technology key to unlocking potential of healthcare industry's shift toward consumerism

The healthcare industry should be looking at what some of the tech giants are doing to determine how to move forward.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

There's practically no limit to how the healthcare industry stands to gain from the smart implementation of new technology. From sharing patient records to facilitating a better patient experience, technology -- specifically, artificial intelligence and machine learning -- has been slowly changing the industry for years.

The key word, though, is "slowly." Perhaps due to the complicated nature of healthcare, there haven't been a lot of revolutionary steps forward when it comes to technology in the industry, and that could pose a problem as healthcare swiftly becomes a more consumer-centric endeavor.

Increasingly, the emphasis has been on meeting the consumer where they are, offering the kind of convenience and experience more typically found in sectors such as retail. Some feel healthcare is ripe for a dramatic technological evolution. And there are lessons healthcare can learn from other industries.

"I think if you look at what some of the big tech companies do extremely well, they engage the end user, who is often a consumer in other industries," said Matt Hawkins, CEO of Waystar. "So the likes of Amazon or Google, and Microsoft, they are well acquainted with working with lots of information and using that information to create an experience for end users.

"I think what's transformative is the intense focus on treating the patient as a consumer … and developing technologies from that point out," he said.

TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE

From where things stand today, healthcare is behind the curve, technologically speaking. Right now the industry is dominated by what Hawkins called "first-order" technology, which is designed primarily to replace workflows. Paper workflows have been effectively digitized, but in the end they're still the same workflows.

With mergers, acquisitions and general consolidation the norm in the industry, some are saying that Apple should acquire Epic, according to CNBC. Hawkins isn't so sure it's a great idea. The issue, Hawkins said, is that Epic is very provider-centric, and trying to move to a more consumer-centric framework, which is a tough move.

What would make for a winning strategy, in his opinion, is taking a consumer-centric experience and letting the patient take their health record anywhere they want to -- across hospitals and doctor's offices if need be. Consumer-centric Apple and provider-centric Epic would be an awkward fit, since the focus of each company is currently different. Other companies are better poised to make transformational change.

"Some are really well-equipped to participate in that transition," said Hawkins. "Amazon, for instance, grew up with the consumer in mind, and has created an elegant consumer experience. Can you imagine experiencing healthcare in an Amazon-like way?"

Google has shown an aptitude for understanding its users, investing in diagnostic data technologies that help with patient and project management. Other companies, like eBay and PayPal, have shown a similar knack for understanding what the consumer wants. Those are the companies healthcare should be looking to, said Hawkins.

"I think we see payers that are very interested in that, too," he said. "I think a direct-to-patient experience might be the future there. I see payers, to truly stay relevant, going more and more directly to patients."

LESSONS

There's evidence that established providers are starting to feel the pressure follow in the same consumer-facing direction as some of the big tech giants. And there are some ways in which they can do so.

Step one among health systems is to build a critical mass, leveraging scale to reach the highest number of patients; these days, that's done mostly through consolidation.

Step two is the adoption of a health information system, such as Cerner, to manage data across health systems. Step three, which some are doing, is to adopt a health plan and be willing to switch value-based reimbursement models.

Healthcare organizations should be future-proofing their investments by putting more into technologies that can help break through on that promise, said Hawkins.

"The lesson is, long-term, information transparency wins," he said. "Amazon is really great at taking information like prices -- things that are important to consumers -- and building that into an engaging consumer experience, and bringing transparency to that. Apple does that really well. A major feature of both is convenience. Amazon's done a great job at transparency and convenience, and people love it.

The lack of transparency is starting to frustrate consumers. The goal should be making things easier, such as processing payments. Estimating payment at the point of care, prior to the actual delivery of care, is not only an effective consumer engagement strategy, it's technologically viable, even today.

Finding a good technology vendor can free a health system's in-house staff to focus in what matters, which is patient care, said Hawkins.

"I would advocate for true partnership," he said. "If they're having to do their own tech work, something has failed them along the way, and they're investing in things that are not core to most provider organizations.

"I think we'll see some fantastic things over the next five, 10 years," said Hawkins. "We're going to see more uses for AI, more predictive technologies. I think it's just a super exciting time."
 

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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