VIEWPOINT: Consumers should take charge of health

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In an environment where we’re all being asked to pay a larger share of our own health care costs, it’s interesting to see how little time we spend thinking about major decisions that have an impact on our health. Like selecting a primary care physician or any
medical specialist, for example.

According to a recent Managed Care Weekly Digest survey, 67 percent of U.S. adults ages 18-64 said they spent eight hours or more researching an automobile purchase, yet only 38 percent spent that much time researching a doctor. Only 34 percent spent eight hours or more researching a health care plan.

In our fast-paced society, many people likely find a doctor simply by scanning a Web site or getting a referral from a friend. Sure, you can find a doctor that way. But what about the quality of care? Do you know what kind of care you’re getting and at what cost?

Those of us in the medical and health insurance community may be responsible, in part, for this problem. Because of the way the health care system is set up, it’s easy for consumers to be bystanders in their health care: The decisions are left to the doctor and the health insurance company pays the claim. But where is the most important person in this transaction-the consumer?

Then along came a book that’s helping reshape the way we think about our health
and our health care. “You: The Owner’s Manual” has been a retail success because, instead of lots of medical and scientific jargon, this book gives readers a simple, often humorous view of the human body and lots of memorable tips to make you healthier. People are snatching it up because we’re all trying to be healthier, lose weight, look 10 years younger and, ultimately, live longer. We want to be engaged in our health care.

Messages contained in this book, and others like it, are helping consumers be better directors of their own health care. Those in the industry call this trend “consumerism.” The success of consumerism hinges on empowering individuals to get more involved so they can become healthier, get better quality health care, live longer and help control escalating health care costs.

It’s going to take more than a book, however, to transform the health care system. Consumerism needs the support and endorsement of doctors, nurses, hospital executives, insurance companies, businesses and government if it’s to make a difference.

Consider this: Some studies have shown that as much as 45 percent of every health care dollar is wasted. For a country that spent $1.5 trillion on health care in 2005, that’s a hefty burden on all of us.

Consumerism is about doing your research to determine who’ll treat you if
you get bronchitis or diabetes or cancer, and understanding the quality of care, whether it’s necessary and what it costs. But you can’t do the research if the information isn’t available or is hard to find.

Making that information accessible is part of the solution. We also need the following:

Standardized, accessible and easyto-understand performance metrics and quality outcome reports for medical professionals.

Improved technology systems, which can then make this access more available.

Empowered consumers who have the information they need to make educated health care decisions.

Rewards for doctors, hospitals and others who improve the quality of their health care delivery.

Consumerism is the best prescription we have, not only to control health care costs, but also to shrink waistlines, keep hearts in shape, and promote longer, healthier lives. More-educated consumers make better, more informed, financially prudent decisions when it comes to their health care. Millions of empowered consumers can transform our nation’s health care system.

Dr. David Lee is vice president of health care management for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana and a former practicing internist in Indianapolis.

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