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Differentiating Between Patients and Healthcare Consumers

Posted Mar 06 2013 12:00am

Having used the terms patient and healthcare consumer almost interchangeably in Lab Soft News over the years, I was drawn to a recent note that attempted to better define these two terms (see: Digital health: Are we patients or consumers? ). Below is an excerpt from it:

Years ago, using the word "consumer" to describe a patient in the healthcare setting would have labeled you a healthcare heretic quite quickly. To refer to patients as consumers highlighted the commercial aspect of healthcare often avoided, until recently, in general discourse surrounding healthcare....[I]t's clear that one of the big questions in healthcare is no longer "Are we patients or consumers?" but rather "When do the roles change, if at all?" ....There is a growing confluence of both the patient and the patient as a consumer, which is reflected in the devices coming to market that are targeted toward consumers and clinicians. First, let's clarify that the common underlying role of healthcare is to communicate. Patients communicate symptoms and providers communicate treatments....Patients still need to consult with health professionals via verbal communication....[T]he digital health working toward the goal of improving communication to improve our healthcare system. This technological innovation was on display in the halls of CES this year with many organizations focused on how to communicate better, faster, or in some instances passively with patients and consumers. Many consumer-centric devices focused on the passive tracking or attempts to communicate via technology regarding behavior change. A few of the patient-centric devices focused on better and faster communication. Now, the answer to the question of when are patients really consumers most likely lies within workflow and how technology is applied. Consumers become patients once care begins. In the mobile and wireless world, however, this is becoming almost indiscernible; hence the question should really be "When do consumers truly become patients?" While classification of the patient/consumer role is still a work in progress, the mHIMSS Roadmap , published late last year, aims to help push the conversation forward by evaluating and highlighting the roles of consumers and patients. So what's ahead in the digital health/eHealth/mHealth/telehealth space (it's a crowded space)? 

I personally view a patient as a person with an illness who is receiving care from a healthcare provider or receiving preventive care. In contrast, I view a healthcare consumer as someone who proactively takes steps to improve his or her health status and takes an active interest in health issues. Steps taken may be as simple as gathering information or as complex as making lifestyle changes.

Now consider this definition in the light of the rapid development of various e-health applications running on smartphones (see: The iPhone Effect: Smartphones and Their App Ecosystems Have Changed Everything"Check Engine Light" for Health Surveillance on Our Smart PhonesHealthcare Consumers as Self-Trackers; Process Enabled by New Apps ). Increasingly, sophisticated devices for recording physiologic measurements will be plugged into smartphones and some of this recorded information will be transmitted to physicians or nurses. Also consider implantable devices such as pacemakers that store data that may soon be transmitted to the cloud or directly to a physician's office (see: Should Patients Have Access to Data from Their Implanted Medical Devices? ).

Thus and in answer to the question raised in the excerpt above ("When do consumers truly become patients?) , here's one obvious answer. A health consumer becomes a patient when sick enough that most of the decisions and initiatives are taken by treating physicians. However, the boundaries and definition of such a consumer are rapidly expanding. The question of workflow as a means of defining a healthcare consumer is also getting very complicated. Increasingly, individuals will be generating some of the information that providers may depend upon for a diagnosis. Perhaps we need a new definition such as engaged healthcare consumer to describe a person who is taking much more responsibility for his own health.

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