With the Open Enrollment Period for the Affordable Care Act drawing to a close, it’s a good time to step back and look at the broader issues facing healthcare delivery in the United States. Although a great deal of attention has been given to the impact of the ACA on healthcare expenditures, research in the Annals of Family Medicine shows that population growth and an aging population are going to be even stronger drivers of expanded usage, creating the need for thousands of new Primary Care Physicians. Currently there are approximately 210,000 PCPs in the US, but it is estimated that a total of 52,000 new PCPs will be needed between now and 2025, assuming that current usage patterns remain more or less constant. Of these new PCPs, approximately 33,000 will be needed to meet population growth, about 10,000 needed to address an aging population, and about 8,000 to meet insurance expansion. In other words, with or without the ACA, the US is facing a tremendous expansion of primary care demand.
Fortunately, there is absolutely no shortage of ideas about how to address this critical challenge. In fact, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal highlighted the ideas of more than a dozen health policy experts and physicians, with suggestions ranging from medical school loan reimbursement to expanded use of nurse practitioners and care management teams, to increased usage of home care delivery networks.
However, one potential solution for addressing the growing demand for health services that received little to no attention among this panel of experts is the need for a dramatically heightened focus on health literacy, health communications, and patient education. This oversight is unfortunate because we believe there are five key reasons why now is the time to significantly elevate the national focus on patient education and health communications.
1. Patient Education is a High-Volume Intervention
With hundreds of millions of office visits occurring each year, the potential leverage around improving patient education approaches and strategies is truly significant. Whether receiving an annual checkup or discussing a complex procedure, at every point in the patient journey, there is an opportunity for better, more succinct, and more timely communications.
2. Patient Education Has Exceptional ROI
Even back in the 1990s, the investment in patient education was well-documented
with “savings generally three or more times greater than program costs.” More recent studies among cardiovascular patients have shown that just one hour of education by a nurse educator at time of discharge can result in “improved clinical outcomes, increased self-care measure adherence, and reduced cost of care in patients.” The total subsequent savings compared with the control group was $2,823 per patient — from just one hour of education.
3. Communication Tools Scale Exponentially, People and Budgets Are Linear
As writer George Gilder has pointed out, one of the keys to innovation and economic progress is to waste newly abundant resources to solve for what has become scarce. As a digital agency, we are immersed in the ongoing communications revolution that gains in strength and scope with every new iPhone and Android release, and each new app, tablet, and wearable device. Driven by Moore’s Law, each succeeding communications platform is qualitatively more powerful than the one preceding it. In other words, if you believe the iPhones and iPads of 2014 can help to improve patient education, wait until you see the devices of 2016 — and beyond! In short, it is time to fully incorporate a critical feature of our modern economy into core discussions surrounding healthcare costs: namely, that digital communications technology is doubling in power every 18 months while the GDP and number of PCPs are not.
4. Visual and Social Healthcare Is Just Getting Started
Certainly many people in the healthcare space are aware of Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook; however, few policy experts have thoroughly addressed what these emerging platforms of visual and social connectivity will mean for the future of health diagnosis, delivery, and adherence. Within the last 12 to 18 months, we have seen significant traction among our clients to harness the power of visual storytelling to address both internal communication challenges as well as patient-facing education and marketing needs. We believe this demand is being driven by the broader impact that platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram are having on patients as they embrace the use of visual storytelling in their daily lives. The bottom line is that we are in the very early phases of a visual storytelling revolution that is going to impact every aspect of marketing and communications – especially in terms of patient education and adherence.
5. Driven by a World-Class User Experience, Anywhere Health Is Increasingly Cost-Effective
Although most medical services and reimbursable costs remain attached to specific locations, the future of Anywhere Health is being realized across a myriad of devices, apps, and diagnostic breakthroughs. We have been tracking these trends for almost three years at AnywhereHealth.com, and the momentum that is building around a location-agnostic health delivery system is truly incredible. At the core of these patient-centered delivery and diagnostic platforms are elegant user interfaces that communicate personalized information in a way that is intuitive, timely, and actionable. The days of receiving indecipherable lab results, pages of small print, and impersonal discharge information are giving way to a mobile-first, personalized patient journey regime that is visually driven, tied to specific adherence goals, and linked back with the entire team of healthcare providers.
In many aspects, the US healthcare system is unsurpassed, with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment, highly trained and dedicated medical professionals, and the most advanced treatments. Why then, at the conclusion of this incredible experience, are we content to send patients and caregivers home with printed brochures that look like they were designed in the 1950s? Now is the time for the US to invest in world-leading patient communications. We have the technology (most of it was invented here), and the economic incentives are clear. What is needed is for stakeholders across the healthcare spectrum to begin embracing and leveraging the digital communications revolution that is happening all around them. Although aging and population growth trends cannot change, the ability to deliver higher levels of care to millions of additional patients, at significantly lower cost, is possible; however, it will require stepping up to meet this challenge in new ways, embracing new platforms and approaches.
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