The last two decades have seen a shift in the dynamics of doctors’ consultation rooms. Informed patients have begun to push away on the paternalistic “I know best for you’ doctors and started demanding more from their healthcare providers. This rise in healthcare consumerism follows on the heels of a similar consumer led transformation seen in the travel, retail and banking industries.

The internet unleashed an information revolution in the 90s that placed more data at the hands of the consumer. Armed with vital and relevant information, consumers across industries started making choices they were not able to even a decade back. You now had information about hotel rooms halfway across the world, could book a flight from Chicago to Austin sitting in Pune and could order your favourite item from Amazon from anywhere in the world.

Consumerism in the healthcare industry can also trace its recent origin to the 90s and the mushrooming of healthcare information websites. Sites like WebMD and good old Google brought complex medical information to patients at home. All of sudden, myocardial infarction and schizophrenia were not exotic names that only doctors could shed light on. Everyone with a computer (or anyone who knew someone with a computer) could now read everything about medicine. There have been other sources of information for the healthcare consumer in the past (the Merck Manual is still a fantastic and credible read) but none that could reach billions of people around the world as fast as the internet did.

What has changed?

With this demystified world in their hands now, the healthcare consumer began to change the conversation. It started with the informed patient asking questions, demanding answers to conditions they now had read about. Doctors and hospitals had to start adapting to the new informed consumer – now they had to start communicating more with the patients.  And with increased information (and some increase in knowledge) and of course the platforms provided by social media, patients started to voice their opinions. “This doctor made me wait, the hospital is dirty, they charged me too much, they have a great surgical team, here’s what you should be asking your doctor”… Suddenly, opinions on healthcare experiences exploded in the virtual world, making their way from the web to social media to healthcare mobile apps. Patients began to take notice and used this new crowdsourced information to further refine their healthcare choices. The consumer minded patient has made way for interesting new models. Patients can now order their genetic profiles online. If they feel unwell, they could do a virtual consultation with a doctor and if not happy with the response, get a second opinion from a plethora of other internet sites. If that seems like too much to do, they could even plug in their symptoms into one of many triage sites to get a provisional diagnosis. They can order medicines and diagnostics tests online, and if they need surgery, robotics will ensure their surgeon doesn’t even need to be in the same room as them.

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Health providers try to keep pace

Healthcare providers, hospitals, clinics and doctors have begun to take notice and started instituting mechanisms to get ahead of this tsunami of public opinion. Most hospitals have now begun “patient education programs” (even if most remain underwhelming) and collecting “patient feedback” is now part of most hospital and clinic processes. I often hear patients being referred to as clients or customers, implying their satisfaction is now an important metric of care delivery. A number of primary healthcare delivery clinics and online counselling startups in India have started offering warranties and money-back guarantees to their dissatisfied patients. These organisations believe treating patients like customers places the right pressure on their system to demystify and educate patients as well as to deliver on promised outcomes. The Indian government recently started a program called Mera Aspataal (My Hospital) to solicit feedback from patients on their experience at over 145 government hospitals.  When I was in medical school, it was important to ensure patients go back healthy. Now it’s important to ensure they go back healthy and happy; you could argue, that the two are not always the same.

Has it really made a difference?

Patient centricity has unequivocally changed the direction of healthcare in the right direction. Patients and their caregivers are more informed today than they were just 20 years back. They have more data available to make informed healthcare choices. Their feedback to facilities and doctors has begun to change practices and workflows in hospitals. Doctors are communicating more and recognising they need to play by the rules of this new healthcare marketplace where consumers can ask questions, demand answers and if necessary, vote with their footfalls. It is very clear that choices offered to consumers across other sectors is beginning to prime their expectations of the healthcare transaction as well. A recent Mckinsey report on healthcare consumerism found that patient expectations will continue being shaped by their experiences from retail, technology and other consumer oriented industries.

The rise in healthcare consumerism is a starting point, not the end, in redefining healthcare experiences for the future. Plenty of work yet to be done in delivering the healthcare experience our consumers have rightly come to expect.

Want to read more? Read Part (Two) to this article here.

Dr Aakash Ganju is a healthcare consultant and entrepreneur, focused on increasing transparency, access, and convenience to health providers and consumers. He is the CEO of Avegen and lives in Mumbai, India.