WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pivotal to the titanic shift to a value-driven business model is understanding how the health care consumer acts. Yes, I said "consumer," not "patient." As we've reported in the past, patients are likely to start acting more like consumers in the coming years and hospital executives need to be ready. What does this mean? Well, think about the trends that are giving patients more say in how they get and pay for care — price and quality transparency, high-deductible insurance and mHealth, for starters. And, the consumer-patient will demand high-quality service.

Some health systems are getting out in front of the trend, rather than being forced to play catch-up a couple of years down the road. For instance, Providence Health & Services, one of the largest not-for-profit health systems in the country has, over the past couple of years hired executives from Amazon and other retailers in an effort to shape its consumer-facing strategy. Speaking at an American Hospital Association event yesterday, Providence CEO and President Rod Hochman, M.D., said that retail and technology expertise is needed to keep up with a patient population that in some ways is getting very sophisticated. Hochman said the transition can be jarring for those coming from outside of health care. “They look at us as though we’re absolutely insane in the way we deal with our patient customers,” he said. “Why? Because we’re not putting them at the center of everything that has to be done.”

Meanwhile, Jesse Cureton, chief consumer officer at Novant Health, also speaking at the AHA event, said that the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based system is conducting research into what consumers want. Some of the results have been sobering. For example, the favorite time for a patient to schedule a doctor's appointment would be between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., not a period when many clinics are open, said Cureton, who joined Novant from the banking sector.

And if traditional health care providers aren't poised to meet consumers on their terms, nontraditional ones are. Beyond having convenient clinic hours, Walgreens is expanding into more complex treatment areas than sniffles and scratches, noted Alan London, M.D., vice president of strategic clinical partnerships for the drugstore company. Specifically, he said there are a number of chronic care-related services that Walgreens in-store clinics could provide, noting that diabetic patients visit Walgreens stores frequently. "We're intrigued by that," London said.

The three-hour AHA event served as an opportunity to discuss some of the major market trends that are reshaping health care. Beyond consumerism, panelists highlighted a couple of other issues:

  • Telehealth: The technology is being seen as a way to better enable care in a variety of settings. The AHA released a telehealth-focused Trendwatch report as part of the event. With a physician shortage expected by many, telehealth is going to play an ever-growing role, as long as reimbursement models keep up. Pam Sutton-Wallace, CEO of the University of Virginia Medical Center, said the medical center already is using a lot of telehealth, mostly in rural settings. But telehealth could prove fruitful anywhere there's a shortage of clinicians. Sutton-Wallace noted that the University of Virginia has saved 15 million miles of driving using telehealth.
  • Transparency: Jeanne Pinder, founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts.com and a former New York Times reporter, runs a company that is systematically gathering and reporting actual prices paid for health care procedures with the goal of giving patients more information to make informed decisions. The site more closely resembles social media site Pinterest than it does a traditional health care rating site, such as Medicare's Hospital Compare. That got me to thinking about how two systems — the University of Utah Health System and Piedmont Healthcare — are trying to ride the transparency wave rather than fight it. Both are posting patient ratings of physicians — good and bad — on their respective websites in a bid to maintain some control and authority on the subject. Physicians and system leaders came to a decision that the patient rating information of some sort is going to get out there and it makes sense for them to have a hand in presenting it, said Brian Gresh, the University of Utah's senior director for interactive marketing and the Web, for a story on health care innovation and the baby boom generation.

The moderator of yesterday's event, Adrian Slywotsky, partner emeritus for Oliver Wyman, posed to several of the speakers the question of how things will be different in just three short years. The answers were appropriately vague for the most part. Things will be very different — that is almost guaranteed — but how different is unknown. I'm setting a reminder in my calendar and I hope to revisit these questions then.

In the meantime, you can comment below or directly to me via email, Twitter, and Google+.