The New Healthcare Consumer: Homo Informaticus Meets Health

 It seems nearly every conference I’ve attended in the past eighteen months has asked a question like, “Who’s going to be the Amazon or Uber in health care?”

Underneath that ask are tectonic forces re-shaping people into health consumers, whether well, managing chronic conditions, patients, or caregivers. THINK: Consumers ‘R Us.


Accenture recently published a report on the new era of “living services,” observing the digitization of “everything” and consumers’ “liquid” expectations — which are demands for personalized, engaging and adaptable experiences. While these services impact retail, transportation, workplaces, and cities, they most profoundly impact our bodies, our selves.

At the same time, we consumers-as-consumers are morphing into a new species EY termed homo informaticus. In looking at how people the world over are living multi-channel, multi-media, multi-platform lives, we’re becoming keen information seekers, mastering long-tail searches on Google and learning to use smartphones like Swiss Army knives.

That multi-channel journey now includes our health-lives. The 2015 Fifth Annual Pulse of Online Health from Makovsky found that Among the 91% of Americans who would search online for health information, condition management (58%), exploring symptoms (57%), and researching a prescribed treatment (55%) are the most popular motivators. Overall, Makovsky noted that 66% of people want to leverage digital tools to manage health.

Beyond managing clinical and physical health, a growing aspect of our health-lives is financial wellness. Walgreens announced it would work with Alegeus Technologies to link its loyalty program Balance Rewards to health savings accounts and other programs. A key feature of that loyalty program is consumers’ linking their activity tracking via 19 mobile health apps and 29 devices as of September 2015 (to earn points “automagically,” coins Walgreens on the Balance Rewards website).

Health consumers are connecting the dots between financial health and overall health, with high-deductible health plans compelling the health-insured to become more financially-engaged in health care decisions – whether asking for a substitute, less expensive prescription drug; seeking care at a lower-cost setting like an urgent care clinic instead of visiting an emergency room; or, shopping in the community for an arthroscopic procedure via an information portal or using an app that connects patients to providers in online healthcare marketplaces.

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) underpin homo informaticus’s health consumer journey. The current irony for the health care consumer who wishes to engage in their health through ICTs is the volume of choices of mobile apps (at least 165,000 according to IMS Institute’s 2015 study); tracking devices, wearables and smartwatches; websites; and, numerous portals (e.g., served up by one’s insurance plan, hospital system, physician’s practice, and personal health tracking apps).

This is indeed ironic, because that health care consumer also needs to learn how to shop for information sources and technologies based on one’s own needs, values, and health status. This is a new flavor of health literacy – digital-consumer health literacy. Along with friends and family, and peer-to-peer social networks, the most likely team-mate for the patient in identifying useful digital health tools and apps are clinicians. But consumers and clinicians aren’t yet on the same page when it comes to which types of digital tools will be most useful: 40% consumers polled on Medscape said they’d like to use technology for self-diagnosis of non-life-threatening medical conditions versus only 14% of providers.

To address this challenge is an emerging market of platforms for physicians to crowdsource recommendations for patients to “prescribe” apps and tools; the continued growth of peer-to-peer health care and support in online patient social networks; Yelp! for healthcare and other sources for transparency of price, quality and consumer reviews; and, a growing array of services to help people build those new health/care consumer muscles. As the Medscape study concludes, “As medicine gets increasingly digitized, the forces favoring democratization will likely be intensified.”

Learn more ideas about how connected health is changing healthcare, check out the HIMSS Connected Health Conference in Washington, DC, November 9-11.

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, MA (Econ.), MHSA, sits on the HIMSS Connected Health Committee. She leads THINK-Health, a health/care strategy consultancy, focusing on health + tech + people, and founded the Health Populi blog in 2007 where she writes about the health/care ecosystem, economics, and technology. Follow Jane on Twitter @healthythinker

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