Fact vs Fiction – Navigating the Health Care Marketplace with Consumer Reports

At Health 2.0 WinterTech: The New Consumer Health Landscape speakers and sponsors are exploring the platforms that empower the informed consumer movement by providing objective reviews of consumer products. Senior Director, of Health Impact and Consumer Reports, Tara Montgomery will be joining the event to speak to their research on the health products, prescriptions, and providers that contribute to the changing consumer health landscape.

Health 2.0: Tara can you start by speaking to what really pushed this expansion into research and advocacies surrounding health products and when you sort of saw this started shifting?

Tara Montgomery: Yes. Well, actually, you might not know, but we have been in health since day one, and it was actually in our charter back in 1936 to look out for the well-being of all consumers. We started in our very first issue of our magazine and we rated Alka-Seltzer and said that its claims vanish — like gas bubbles in the air.  So that was our first foray into health, but that was in a small scale, and I think it was typical of the kinds of health products being advertised to consumers earlier in the 20th century, but over the decades, we covered health lightly. And then, really, about 10 years ago, we saw the shift in healthcare where the consumer’s role really was shifting much more consciously from a compliant patient to a need to be a more savvy health consumer. That was a real call to action for us because our role in helping consumers out in the world is really to give people savvy information about value, and everything we’ve done in washing machines and cars and toasters has been about helping people evaluate the benefits, their satisfaction, and the value for money of the products and services they choose. When the burden of health costs started to shift towards consumers, and you know that definitely has been more intense in the past couple of years, we’ve needed to rise to the occasion and helpconsumers navigate that new role. So, that was a moment for us along with transparency, because when we wanted to rate healthcare products and services more than 10 years ago, the data wasn’t available, and obviously, you can’t look at health the same way as we look at cars and washing machines and bang — our national lab. You need to collect data and experiences and so on, and when that wasn’t transparent, we couldn’t do our jobs. So we’ve been fighting for transparency in terms of safety information, price information, and so on for several years and made progress and seen progress to the point where we were able to capture that data and begin to analyze it and do ratings and give really much more valuable consumer advice in health. So that’s the story of kind of how we’ve got to be so involved today.

Health 2.0: Yeah, that’s fantastic to understand that overview and then also, see that market shift in their response and call to action as well. So Tara, from what I’ve been researching and seeing, Consumer Reports has done a phenomenal job of reporting the facts and avoiding bias. How do you find this approach effective versus the articles that consumers see on a day-to-day basis, with glossy covers, telling us what and what not to do?

TM: Yes. Well, I mean, we worry about the influences on consumers particularly from advertisers — that may be very subtle, and even there, there may be good intentions among healthcare journalists in the mainstream media. But there is direct and indirect pressure from advertisers whether it’s, you know, a regional magazine that’s featuring best doctors of the region that is paid for by advertisements from those doctors. That makes it very difficult to question the quality of those doctors’ care, to journalism that’s based on press releases and under pressure in a very challenged media environment where journalists don’t always get the opportunity to do their thing as well as they want to. So, yes, there is scrutiny around the quality of healthcare journalism. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, but the consumer doesn’t necessarily know the difference, and we really try and come in as the trusted brands to fill that gap and help people see the facts and the science, as you say. But there are areas of health where the style of journalism in glossy media is valuable because it inspires people and just engages them. Obviously, if you only cover science in a very earnest way, you may not engage people. So there’s a balance there in terms of borrowing from some of the ways that the mainstream media writes about health, but also being true to the science. That’s actually very hard.

Health 2.0: Something you just brought up there is that there is such a difference between the informed health consumer and the engaged health consumer. So would you say a major trend in consumer health advocacy is helping navigate information that is unbiased versus sensational?

TM: Actually, you’re right because the media’s job is often more to inform than to engage the informed health consumer. They need to sell magazines or sell newspapers, and they move on from an issue and they may cover the issue of the day, but they don’t maintain a relationship with their readers to kind of guide them through dealing with an issue over time. So you could, say, have an issue like “end of life,” which we saw in the news a few weeks ago, people trying to make decisions about how to end their life. The media covers that really intensively for maybe two weeks and then they all move on. But where are they in terms of engaging people as they’re at the point of decision making to make decisions about end of life issues? How do they get people comfortable with having those conversations themselves? The traditional journalism really doesn’t work in that space to kind of stay there with the consumer throughout and help to engage them in actually making personal decisions. So we want to be a part of that, but others also are playing a role in that.

Health 2.0: Definitely. So building off of what we’re just sort of talking about, from what I’ve read, Consumer Reports and sort of the advocacy side of Consumers Union, they really leverage the power of the narratives. I was wondering if you could speak to how this strategy has influenced the success of certain campaigns or how you’ve really seen that perspective play a role in educating other consumers.

TM: I love that question. I think what we’ve learned is that combining stories with data is a great formula, that stories humanize data in really important ways to make people aware that, you know, data about an issue in health like the safety of a drug or the safety of a hospital is not just a statistic, it is somebody’s life.  And so we work hard to meet real consumers, capture their stories, show their stories, and use their stories as a way to eliminate what’s going on in data. That gives more authenticity to transparency where revealing a certain percentage rate of hospital-acquired infections is one thing, that’s important, but until you tell the story of a family that was impacted by that, the data doesn’t mean anything. So we really think that the storytelling helps people relate and engage and maybe become aware of an issue so that they may want to get more involved in the decision to, say, advocate for themselves in the hospital or choose a safe hospital or whatever the issue is. So that combination is really useful. Actually, our print magazine has a great role to play in, having the space to tell those stories through journalism and then combining that with the data that we can provide digitally to help people make decisions because of the story they read.

Health 2.0: Right, absolutely. Can you speak to the kind of outreach you track with your print media program? And how you maintain engagement across both print and online platforms. 

TM: Right. Well, the engagement we do with consumers is not only our readers of our magazines and our website, but a little more creative through partnerships. In health, we want to reach a very diverse audience and not just the more educated, affluent people that traditionally come to Consumer Reports. So we do partner with dozens of groups, from AARP to Wikipedia, and many digital groups, including Castlight Health and Dossier, to embed our guidance in the context of what they’re doing to serve the people that are in their constituency. So, you may see our work in a video in Spanish in a Migrant Farm Worker Clinic, or you may see it in a transparency tool or a patient portal; so, very different channels than traditional media, but much more at the point of decision making or the point of care, and in a culturally relevant context. So that’s something we’re experimenting with at the moment and pretty proud of with the reach that we’ve had there. Going back to the traditional publications, yes, in general, print magazines are declining. Our magazine has been quite stable partly because we don’t rely on advertising, we don’t take advertising, and partly because our demographic tends to be older and still pretty loyal to print. So our magazine still has life in it, but our focus is definitely digital, and we recognize the power of digital to help people achieve their health goals in a much more meaningful way and really turn digital to make decisions whereas you might say that a magazine is more of a browsing tool that you passively receive information through. Digital is an opportunity to proactively seek information and make personally appropriate decisions.

Health 2.0: Great. And so, Tara, this is my last question. AtWinterTech, you’re joining this really exciting panel, The Informed Health Consumer, how do you think digital health will really play a greater role in equipping health consumers? And how do you think that Consumer Reports will respond and be involved in this sort of change?

TM: Well, I do think that because, as I said at the beginning, consumers now are being sort of forced into this role as active health decision makers; they will naturally turn to digital. They will go to Google first or to a tool provided by their health plan or another provider to figure out how much things cost, what they do and don’t need, and they become shoppers just like people are shoppers digitally on Amazon, and do their research online when they’re making a shopping decision. Even if they end up offline to make the final purchase, digital is the vehicle for every consumer decision, and so that’s going to be true for health.  It’s already really quite true for health. And I think we’ll just see a greater number of people engaging who may not previously have been engaged or felt responsible, but who migrate to digitals and make the decisions that are now in their own hands. So, it’s exciting. It’s definitely an opportunity for all of us to help consumers get better care and get higher value care through the tools and data that we can make available to them on a big scale. My only concern there is, you know, the concerns we have as a consumer organization around making sure that privacy is protected, that the data people receive is accurate and evidence-based and not biased. So we’re vigilant about what’s out there and want to make sure that other information and tool providers have consumers’ best interest at heart, and they’re not simply trying to capitalize on this movement.

Health 2.0: That’s great. Well, Tara, thank you so much for your comments and insight into Consumer Reports in the consumer health space.  We really appreciate it and we look forward to having you at Health 2.0 WinterTech on January 15th.


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