What’s the most exciting innovation in health care today? If you’re thinking 3-D printing, Apple Health and Healthkit or your Fitbit, you’re missing something big, according to Susannah Fox, entrepreneur in residence with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who previously worked as an associate director at the Pew Research Center. “The most exciting innovation in health care today is people talking to one another,” Fox told attendees at the America’s Health Insurance Plans Ops/Tech Forum in Phoenix last month. Patients historically have gotten a filtered drip of health care information from the vast expert knowledge available in medicine. Under such a model, the people who are most affected by a given condition tend to know the least about it. That’s changing. Fueled by a growing democratization of information, consumers are becoming empowered. They are reading medical journals on their own, making informed decisions and finding their own answers when the health care system does not provide them. And the trend is powered by technology and social media, which allows patients to get the precise information they need, exactly when and where they need it. Imagine a patient with an urgent question sitting in a waiting room. She posts her question to a social media group of similar patients and gets an immediate answer she then carries into her appointment, prepared to question or even challenge clinicians. This is the magic of what Fox calls the “just-in-time-someone-like-me” engagement. How can this really be transformative? Fox described the case of a woman whose child was preparing to undergo a CT scan with sedation, which adds cost and risks to the test. It was through a Facebook conversation with other mothers whose children also have cystic fibrosis that she got the idea to ask about skipping sedation. She did, the clinical team thought it was worth trying, and it worked. The child was spared sedation, no one had to pay for it, and the family was home hours earlier than they otherwise might have been. “This is a case where everybody’s interests are aligned … and yet, nobody had thought to say ‘why don’t we try it without sedation.’” It’s one of numerous examples Fox offered to illustrate what she calls peer-to-peer health care. How can health plans harness this possibility? Fox has a few ideas: Embrace your core mission in a patient-centered way: “Do what you do best. Develop health plans that are truly useful and compete on value.” Fox argues many tools designed to help consumers make decisions don’t get a lot of attention. Instead, insurers must make it easy to find “the right plan for a given person.” Hear what people have to say: “Do fewer surveys and more listening. … Then ask and allow people to participate,” Fox said – particularly those with chronic conditions and caregivers who live the challenges of the health care system every day. This means watching social media, quietly following public conversations not to spy, but to learn and do better. Leverage what people are already doing: Consider the ways people are already using technology for health care. They are plugging search terms into Google, using mobile tools that provide location data and other information. Give them what they’re looking for, where they want it and when they need it. Learn from it: The wealth of information harbored by and flowing among patients and caregivers is incredibly valuable, but no one has figured out a way of feeding that data back into the health care system, Fox says. Opening the funnel of information that historically delivers a trickle of information to patients would allow rapid, two-way flow of data and could spark the true transformation of health care. “The ground is shifting beneath our feet,” Fox said.
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