Patient Shopping in Our Lifetime?

This was the one of the final questions asked at a recent Elsevier conference where I was a speaker. The panel charged with answering this question was largely pessimistic. Panelists felt that the byzantine system of setting prices for both medical procedures and pharmaceuticals made it unlikely that consumers would ever get the cost data required for effective shopping behavior. They couldn’t imagine that anyone in the industry would step up to the challenge of making prices more transparent.

There is certainly reason for their negative outlook. For example, a recent study by Verilogue and Duke Medical Center found that when oncologists discussed  breast cancer treatment options with patients, costs were only discussed in 20% of the cases. If patients can’t get information on the costs and outcomes of various medical and drug treatments, then they can’t make the appropriate trade-offs.

In my opinion, the Elsevier panel was right and wrong.

Right because strides towards increased pricing transparency won’t come from within the industry. But wrong because change will be instigated from outside the industry—by government, non-profit organizations and entrepreneurs unencumbered by the war wounds of fighting vested health care interests.

Here are a couple of examples that provide me with hope:

  • On the non-profit side, there is the Minnesota Community Measure Up coalition. They created the Minnesota D5 program, which provides effectiveness scores for treating diabetes by individual clinics/HCP offices.
  • Newer health care services like Counsyl, a genetic testing company, have actually built cost transparency into their business model. Counsyl has developed a proprietary tool that allows patients to calculate their exact costs once their particular insurance policy is factored in before they sign up for the service.
  • Iodine, a newcomer in the cost and rating business for drugs, has developed a very easy interface to help consumers start evaluating the cost/quality trade-offs for different medications.

Information will drive true shopper behavior.  Contrary to popular belief, patients can make educated choices. Patients don’t reflexively opt for latest and the greatest medical solution. As reported in the New York Times, a recent study in the Annals of Surgery, found that parents actually made the cost effective choice regarding appendectomies for their children.

When parents were told that both conventional and laparoscopic surgery yielded the same results, but that conventional surgery was far less expensive, two-thirds of parents chose the less expensive conventional surgery. 31% said that the information they received was the primary driver in their decision and 90% liked having a choice.

Pharma companies are going to have to learn how to market to health care shoppers rather than patients. This means that not only will pharmaceutical companies have to include cost in their outcomes studies with payers, they will also have to convince health care shoppers that their drugs represent a good value for the money.

And much like restaurants and hotels, Pharma companies will have to regularly monitor the various patient quality and cost rating systems to make sure their medications are fairly portrayed. A bad rating will have a direct impact on revenues, as consumers fail to start or stop using a medication, based on a rating they saw.

Pharma companies will need to include these products ratings from patient sites in their analyses of sales results. I predict that these analyses will show a direct correlation between consumer ratings and revenue. And when that happens, it will be the dawn of the era of the true health care shopper!