Healthcare Users: Patients vs. Consumers

Every day, we are bombarded with consumer product choices – ads tailored specifically to our browsing history pop up on our social media feeds.  Amazon sends personalized emails with product suggestions; a product recently viewed is suddenly shown in the margin of the news article we are reading.  We (or at least I) spend hours comparing products, consumer reviews, and prices to determine what we want to purchase.  Traditionally, however, we don’t face this same level of consumption choice in healthcare as various constraints such as what providers are in our health insurer’s network, what services are included in our coverage, and lack of price transparency restrict the choices.  Still, there is much debate in the industry among healthcare and business professionals if patients should be viewed as consumers.

As many who believe patients should be seen purely as consumers argue, those seeking healthcare services have more choice than ever.  The Affordable Care Act (ACA) gave patients the options to shop for insurance plans on the marketplace exchange.  Reports have consistently shown that individuals make their choices for health plans on the marketplace exchange based on their ability to afford each plan, similar to a typical consumer.  Additionally, the ability to access healthcare services, just like any other goods-producing industry, are increasingly becoming available 24/7.  Patients can now often access their medical records through mobile apps, schedule their own appointments, and attend tele-visits with providers.  There are even apps such as Amwell that allow patients to receive visits on demand with prescriptions sent electronically to a chosen pharmacy.  Technological advances and individuals’ desire to make more informed decisions have forced healthcare companies to adapt and become more transparent and accessible to those seeking care.  The argument of many that see patients as consumers is that, like everything else in the digital age, control of healthcare must continue to shift to the individual.

Many healthcare professionals, on the other hand, strongly believe that it is a grave error to view patients purely as customers.  One article in the New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst, for example, argues that viewing healthcare as merely another commodity bought by consumers is a misrepresentation of the nature of the work.  They support this argument with the truth that ethical constraints and obligations are different in healthcare than in typical consumer products industries.  It is true that the information age has given us the access to all of Google’s answers to what is ailing us at the moment, but in reality, the typical person is not appropriately equipped or qualified to determine the best treatment and must depend on a professional.  Another commonly cited reason against categorizing patients purely as customers is that patients, when extremely sick or in need of a life-saving procedure, disregard cost and have no choice but to place a high degree of trust in another individual – one who has studied and practiced for years in preparation to become a healthcare practitioner – to intervene to save their lives.  That level of trust is not typically placed in someone else in a typical consumer industry.

A commonly held opinion is that those receiving care are both consumers and patients.  Because of the piece of healthcare that involves making choices, such as the purchase of insurance plans, which provider organization to receive care from, and increases in visit-type availability, there is a consumer role in the healthcare market.  Although the choices aren’t as robust as in other industries, they are still present, and that factor cannot be ignored.  However, patients can never be fully replaced with the idea of consumers and remain unique.  The reality is that we are all both patients and consumers.