Healthcare providers are losing relevance. Here’s how to get it back

If you ask people what wellness means to them, chances are they won’t rattle off the name of their doctor, local hospital, or daily medications. They’re more apt to tell you how they take responsibility for their health, whether it’s through exercise or eating right. The likelihood that tech gadgets such as FitBit will come up in the conversation before the name of a person’s primary care physician shows how the balance of power and influence between physician and patient has shifted. And providers are on the losing end.

While the wellness movement began decades ago, driven by baby boomers who were both proactive about their health and mistrustful of authorities, it’s become increasingly digital in the last few years. There is more information now than ever, empowering patients to assume greater control of their health. As a result, we see a need for providers to shift their mentality from providing “healthcare to patients” towards partnering on “healthcare with patients.”

Health means more than lack of illness

People’s perspective on wellness has expanded significantly. Until 1970 or so, staying healthy meant overcoming an acute illness. But then a healthcare revolution began, as people swore off cigarettes, started exercising, and got their blood pressure under control. In a few decades, mortality rates plummeted. Life expectancy jumped. Working in partnership with providers, people took responsibility for their health. They became advocates for themselves, demanding second opinions, and actively seeking health and cancer screenings. And they made big changes: Smoking fell from 45 percent of the adult population in 1965 to just 15 percent this year.

In the last five years, though, healthcare consumers of all ages—but especially millennials—have so expanded their definition of wellness that they’re leaving healthcare providers out of the conversation altogether. In our recent research in conjunction with GE Healthcare, 77% of millennials said nutrition has the top influence on health and wellness, while 60% said exercise is most important. Only 45% felt routine healthcare matters most.

Companies are embracing these trends and injecting wellness into the workplace, not only as a perk, but also as a way to increase productivity and lower healthcare costs. Some 85% of large employers (those with 1,000 or more employees) now offer some type of workplace wellness program.

People are also eager to generate their own digital health record. Almost 20% of smartphone owners have at least one health app on their phone. And about 40% of millennials own a wearable device.

What’s missing with these tools and programs is an overarching structure, someone to help them navigate the fragmented world of wellness. While stocking up on popular wellness products from GNC, FitBit, Lululemon, or Gatorade may be a good start, what people really need is a medically-qualified individual to teach and guide them. But providers aren’t stepping up. While 78% of consumers are interested in health and wellness programs or seminars, only 53% of providers offer it.

On the whole, people still trust the opinion of their doctors, with 50% of those in our research saying they value their doctor’s opinion more than other sources of information, including what they learn online or from friends and family. But that advantage is quickly eroding, especially among younger people. Childhood vaccinations are a powerful example: About 40% of Gen Y parents choose to skip or delay their children’s vaccines, against doctors’ recommendations. And among those 18 to 24, 90% say they trust information shared on their social networks as much as they trust their own doctors.

Why providers are flunking wellness

Hospitals are losing their connection to consumers too. Our research shows that hospitals’ happiest consumers are the ones that interact with them least, with 75% of frequent healthcare consumers saying they are frustrated, compared to 48% of non-frequent users.

For the most part, there’s currently little short-term incentive for hospitals to partner with people on wellness. Instead, most focus on rigid, population-centric metrics, such as readmission rates.

And while they often form partnerships within the healthcare industry, they struggle to find meaningful relationships in the larger community. There are exceptions of course, like Memorial Hermann Healthcare, which offers grocery-store clinics in the Houston area. But generally speaking, hospital systems are not providing the wellness support, such as nutrition counseling or exercise programming that their patient base craves.

And while providers are still struggling mightily to give consumers the resources to manage their health, other brands are happy to fill the gap. Retailers, fitness clubs, app developers, and wearable brands are offering more health-related products, services, and informatics than ever, direct to consumer. For example, data from your FitBit can now integrate with your electronic patient records and become viewable by your doctor.  We are seeing Epic, a leading healthcare software company, implementing this feature into more of their provider clients.

As technology advances enable people to have greater visibility and control over their health, a growing number of companies will emerge in the wellness space. Healthcare providers are increasingly at risk of losing influence and credibility, as patients seek out more wellness-focused sources. Without a strategy to help patients navigate the ever expanding and fragmenting world of wellness, they risk being shut out of their patients’ most important conversations about health.

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