Increasing Consumerism: A Prime Mover For Change in Healthcare

Increasing ‘consumerism’ has already become a strong prime mover to reckon with, even in healthcare, including the pharma industry, across the world. Patients’ longing for better participative treatment experience at an affordable cost, has started gathering momentum as a major disrupting force in the healthcare space of India, as well.

In this article, which discusses a different topic from what I said in my last article that I will write this week, let us try to fathom today’s reality in a fast expanding area, primarily by connecting the emerging dots, both globally and locally. However, before doing so, it won’t be a bad idea to recapitulate, in the general term, what exactly is ‘consumerism’ – and then looking at it in context of healthcare.

What it really means?

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘consumerism’ as: ‘The protection or promotion of the interests of consumers.’ As an example, it says, ‘The impact of consumerism emerges as a factor of stabilization, as do the different understandings of stability and stabilization.’ Whereas, consumerism in healthcare is an assertion of patients’ right to be a key participant in their healthcare decision making process. As aptly put by Healthcare Success: “It is a movement from the ‘doctor says/patient does’ model, to a ‘working partnership’ model.”

Should pharma strategic marketing process, not take care of it?

When the above question is asked differently as: If the pharma strategic marketing process is effective, why is healthcare consumerism increasing across the world, including India? To find an answer to this, let’s go the basic of the definition of ‘marketing’. American Marketing Association (AMA) defines it as: ‘‘Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.’ A more specific definition of pharma marketing (Olszewska A. Strategic management in pharmaceutical marketing. Chemik 2006: S91-4.)is: ‘A management process that serves to identify and meet patients’ needs in a profitable way.’

This prompts the key question, if the above basic process of ‘marketing’ is followed by the pharma industry as it ought to be, why should there be an increasing trend of ‘consumerism’ in Healthcare, in general, and the pharma industry in particular?

The major drivers:

NRC Health through various surveys, has captured the major drivers of consumerism in healthcare. I am listing below a few of those, as I understand, just as examples:

  • Significant increase in health care cost to payers, including the patients.
  • Consumers are the fastest growing payer in the industry.
  • They foot most costs of their health premiums and out-of-pocket co-pays.
  • As consumers have more money at risk, they want to get more engaged with their own treatment decision for the best value for money.
  • One-way monologue for treatment doesn’t not enough for most patients.
  • 3 of 10 patients defer necessary treatment to avoid self-confusion and expense.
  • 4 out of 5 find difficult to compare costs Vs. drug quality.
  • 3 out of 4 feel their health care decisions are the most important and expensive
  • Patients face difficulty to compare cost, quality, and access to physicians.

In my view, sooner than later, the emerging situation in India will also be no different, especially with its increasing digitally empowered population.

Is pharma marketer cognizant of this emerging trend?

It will be unfair to make any sweeping statement that they are not. This is based on what I see and experience around, mostly in the global arena. But locally, although significant publicity of a large number of pharma training programs appear in the social media, most of these are apparently based on the ‘buzz of the time’.

Besides a few sporadic exceptions, generally the Indian pharma marketers still appear to believe in the same age-old model – what the ‘doctor says/patient does’. As a result, increasing consumerism keep haunting the industry – the Government often responds – mostly with sound bites, though, the industry keeps lamenting on the ‘ease of doing business’ or the lack of it, in India. The much avoidable cycle continues.

A prime mover for change in healthcare:

Increasing health care consumerism is a prime mover to usher in significant changes in this space. These changes are mostly unexpected and disruptive, but usually good for the patients. I shall illustrate this point here with just two examples, out of many. The first one comes from three global corporate head honchos of unrelated business, aimed at their own employees. And the other is related to all patients with the initiative coming from within the healthcare industry, including pharma.

The first example of an unexpected move comes from the announcement of three corporate behemoths – Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, saying they would form an independent health care company for their employees in the United States. This was reported by The New York Times (NYT) on January 30, 2018. The alliance signals how frustrated American businesses are not just with their health care system, but also rapidly spiraling cost of medical treatment – the report said. The NYT also quoted Warren E. Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway as saying:“The ballooning costs of health care act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy.”

The initial focus of the new venture, as announced, will be on “technology solutions” that will provide U.S. employees and their families with “simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.”  They also plan to “bring their scale and complementary expertise to this long-term effort.Nevertheless, it is unclear how extensively the three partners would overhaul their employees’ existing health coverage to reduce healthcare cost and improving outcomes for patients. They may simply help workers find a local doctor, steer employees to online medical advice or use their muscle to negotiate lower prices for drugs and procedures. While the alliance will apply only to their employees, these corporations are so closely watched that whatever successes they have could become models for other businesses – NYT commented.

The second examplecomes from an article, titled ‘Consumerism in Health Care’, published in NEJM Catalyst on January 11, 2018. It says, another important change that is a direct outcome of the consumerism of health care is personalization of care to facilitate health outcomes. However, ultimate personalization, that is, a “one-to-one relationship” between a company and an individual appear increasingly possible with the data and analytics that are now within the reach of many global pharma players, the paper says. However, most Indian pharma players, I reckon, still lack wherewithal that’s required to build capabilities to deliver high degree of personalization for patients.

As a result, pharma industry, in general, is still charting in the primary stages of delivering personalization, although, progress made by some global players in this direction is quite encouraging.

Consumerism in healthcare to gather momentum in India:

A September 2016 paper, titled ‘Re-engineering Indian health care’, published jointly by FICCI and EY points to this direction. The results of their survey done as a part of this study indicates, the aspirations of the middle and upper classes are evolving and their demands for convenience, participation and transparency in the health care delivery process are indicative of the shift from being a docile patient to an informed “health consumer.”

Thus, it is irrefutable today that digitally empowered patients are fast increasing, even in India. This is fueled by rapid expansion of broadband Internet in the country – a bottomless source of information. In this scenario, would the general pharma marketing assumption in India - what the ‘doctor says/patient does’, still yield results? Indian pharma marketers may need to possibly do some crystal gazing in this area – sooner the better.

Conclusion:

Accepting the reality of increasing consumerism in the healthcare space, both globally and locally, pharma players, especially in India, need to clear all clutter in the pathway to reach out and directly interact with their end-customers – the patients, aiming at improving clinical outcomes, the way patients would want – individually or in a cluster.

In a nutshell, what do patients want through increasing consumerism: Personal and meaningful involvement in their healthcare decision making process, based on requisite credible information from independent expert sources. Thus, what pharma the players should gear up to be: Cultivating a truly patient-centric approach in their business. And, there lies the real challenge for many in the industry, as it will mean all marketing and related organizational decisions will revolve around in-depth understanding of the patient’s mindset, along with their associated needs, want and health aspirations.

While moving towards this direction, providing personalized care by leveraging optimally selected modern technological platforms, will be a cutting-edge tool for pharma business excellence and achieving sustainable all-round growth – over a long period of time. As I see it, increasing consumerism will continue to remain a prime mover for unexpected, but welcoming changes in the healthcare space, at least for a medium term. It is to be taken rather seriously, with as much care as it deserves.

By: Tapan J. Ray    

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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