Optimistic Skepticism About the Future of Consumer Healthcare

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 9.23.41 AMHealthcare options are changing dramatically. Technological and market developments give people the power to take control of their own health and wellness, now more than ever before. Companies are constantly creating new consumer applications that seek to solve problems across the full spectrum of the healthcare lifecycle. These products include everything from contact lenses that measure blood glucose levels to an application that lets me chat with a psychiatrist at a moment’s notice. But despite recognizing the added convenience and personalization, I’m surprised by how frequently I ignore the sheer variety of products at my disposal in favor of doing things the old-fashioned way. Just this past week, I had to schedule my yearly checkup. Instead of booking my appointment through a service like ZocDoc or DocASAP, I instinctively grabbed my phone and tried to call a doctor. Why?

One reason is that just knowing about the existence of those services didn’t mean they immediately came to mind. Companies in other sectors such as entertainment or e-commerce can habituate customer behavior because their products cater to consumer needs that reoccur on a daily, or at least weekly, basis. This means that, if you can routinely provide a better user experience than your competitors, you establish customer loyalty. This is why when I want to binge watch TV shows, I immediately go on Netflix. Or when I need to buy a new pair of shoes, I always use Amazon. However, changing customer behavior regarding health is challenging because the nature of the behavior is infrequent and sporadic. Most people don’t get sick that often and, when they are healthy, it’s hard to convince them to remember to use app X, Y, or Z in preparation for the future. For a healthcare product to successfully disrupt the status quo, the added benefit or user experience has to be so formative that the person will remember the product the next time around, which could easily be months.

A person’s health is also much more important to them than deciding where to eat or choosing which movies to watch. People use Yelp reviews because finding a place to eat is a fairly casual decision that doesn’t carry much risk. But if I’m sick, I want to make sure that I receive the best possible care. Today, that means I would rather talk to a real person than interact with an app or website. In my experience, it’s much more comforting to make a personal connection with my care provider and to implicitly acknowledge the trust I am placing in him or her to take responsibility for my well-being. Before these products can achieve widespread adoption, they must address this human desire for interpersonal communication; a desire that is amplified during times of need.

I am truly excited about the future of healthcare. It’s finally experiencing the technological innovation it so desperately needs in order to keep up with the ever-growing demands of society. Twenty years ago, we were skeptical about the possibility of sequencing the entire human genome. Now, it can be done for under $1000. Although we have come along way, the new generation of consumer healthcare companies will need to solve the challenges of interpersonal communication and infrequent use in order to truly bring quality care to everyone.

Gabriel Lu is a senior at Columbia majoring in Computer Science and Biology. He has a deep interest in technology and entrepreneurship, specifically in healthcare. 

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9 replies »

  1. The same dynamic would apply to any elective procedure….dx angioplasty, arthroscopic or hip replacement….many of which I personally would also classify as “frill”…though some I would not. I think I would categorize yours as “frill”! Sorry, couldn’t resist!

  2. Paul, how much money from saved lasik or Invisline went into your money losing hospital programs? How does that compare to charging charge master rates to cash pay patients?

    Just because a hospital says it’s loosing money on a service does not mean, in the dark cavernous bowels of non-transparent hospital fees, that it is actually loosing anything.

    Tell me, when you buy a car that is advertised as discounted from MSRP, is the car company actually loosing any money?

    The lasik, Invisline, plastic surgery procedures are frill elective procedures. Get real Paul.

  3. Okay Peter, I will hang in here if we can focus on data and facts. The money saved on the dozens of procedures is being sopped up…not by patients. My hospital Board used it to subsidize all kinds of money losing programs/departments and to fund building and practice acquisitions….and the BS/BC org. which called the shots in the region did not want to rock the boat by negotiating better rates.

    Here is another hint….the nature of the patient/customer provider economic relationship in Lasik, and dentistry (think Invisline orthodontics), and plastic surgery [all medical areas where costs go down and quality goes up relentlessly over time] is very different than in the Rube Goldberg designed web of state/federal/third party insurer world.

  4. “There are dozens of procedures that used to be done in hospital OR’s….now done in doctors offices with very large reductions in cost/procedure.”

    If those are affecting the cost curve then why are patients being forced to bear a higher burden of co-pays and deductibles? Why is there no let up in insurance premium increases.

    Cheer leading does not count for facts.

  5. I should have known better than join a discussion you are in….but you can’t just discuss an issue without getting into a depractory tone…oh well…you can’t seem to help yourself.
    However, to follow up. There are dozens of procedures that used to be done in hospital OR’s….now done in doctors offices with very large reductions in cost/procedure.

  6. Paul, trying to tie procedures done at the doc’s office to ones done in hospitals as a reason for “optimism” on cost is quite naive. Even if those irrelevant connections could be made I don’t think our bank accounts can hold on that long.

  7. Peter,
    average “out the door” cost for LASIK was about $2,150 per eye (or $4,300 for both eyes)….now it can be had for $299….with much better tools/technology.
    It certainly could happen for hips…..

  8. “Twenty years ago, we were skeptical about the possibility of sequencing the entire human genome. Now, it can be done for under $1000.”

    I’m more skeptical of “technology” solving the fundamental crisis in American health care – PRICE.

    Think we will see $1000 hip replacements?

  9. I do agree healthcare is becoming a bit impersonal due to the many gizmos and gadgets of innovative mHealth, however what is the overall percentage of patients who are able to actually speak to their doctors through a phone call? I assure you it’s way less than you’d imagine and you’re more likely to speak with an automated service than a physician. Think of those apps as digital tools that help expedite care!