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Imagine a future where you — the health care consumer — are truly in charge of your care. Where you have the information you need to make smart decisions. And where you shop for health services the way you’d shop for a new car or hire an electrician.

Is this a safe prediction for health care? Or some utopian ideal for a system beyond repair?

If you tuned into a Washington briefing last week on the future of health care, you’d come away convinced that consumers are soon going to be in charge.

The National Institute for Health Care Management invited five speakers to share their thoughts on the future of health care at a briefing on Capitol Hill. BCBSNC CEO Brad Wilson joined two health policy experts, another health plan leader and a top federal health care administrator in the two-hour discussion. The briefing was broadcast live by C-SPAN and archived at the public affairs network’s website.

Throughout the discussion, two themes stood out:

Consumers will have more say. Ours is a system historically led by the experts. Patients went to the doctor and didn’t have much recourse outside of getting a second opinion.

This is changing as consumers now have access to more resources than ever to help them find a doctor or hospital, see what a medical procedure should cost, and even read reviews. And now we’re entering a new phase of consumer engagement — one that will give consumers more access to personalized data that will help them make the right decisions for themselves.

“We must engage consumers in their own health, all the time — not just when they have a medical emergency or a health circumstance that causes them or drives them into the health care system,” Wilson said. “I think this is especially true when we think about how we’re going to improve health at a time when more than half of Americans live with some type of chronic condition, like diabetes or obesity.”

Consumers will get more value. Princeton University health care economist Uwe Reinhardt and health care analyst Avik Roy both showed graphics demonstrating how much is spent on health care in the United States — and how far behind other countries we are in many measures of health. It’s a path we can’t sustain, all panelists agreed.

“There is a moral imperative to getting our act together in health care,” Reinhardt said.

Working in our favor, however, is the current movement toward paying for health quality and outcomes — as opposed to the volume of procedures. A lot of experimentation is necessary now, and not all methods of payment reform will work as planned. But as doctors, hospitals, insurers and others collaborate more, the value to the consumer will rise.

As the briefing highlighted, there’s a long way to go toward giving consumers more value and more say. But the speakers agreed there’s good reason to believe that current progress will lead to achieving both of these aims. And that would mean a future health care system that looks quite different from what we experience today.

About Kyle Marshall

Kyle Marshall, a senior communications specialist at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, writes about the health care industry and provides communications counsel and support to the company's executive team.