New Year 2016: How Consumers Will Rock Health Care

Now is the time for the health sector to seize the moment, and remake itself from an industry that treats illness to one that succeeds at preventing it. Communication is the cure for people to make better decisions, adopt positive behaviors, adhere to treatment and practices and lead healthier lives.
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Doctor comforting patient during consultation
Doctor comforting patient during consultation

It's 2016 and health care is at a never-before moment of change. The mass consumerization of health, the growing influence of women over the health care industry and dramatic technological innovation are driving a major shift for pharma companies, physicians, pharmacists and other providers.

Now is the time for the health sector to seize the moment, and remake itself from an industry that treats illness to one that succeeds at preventing it. Communication is the cure for people to make better decisions, adopt positive behaviors, adhere to treatment and practices and lead healthier lives.

How will we get there? In the spirit of the New Year, I offer the following blueprint of the "Who" "What" "How" "Where" and Why" of Health Communication:

Who: Consumers are leading the change in Health Care

The biggest shift in 2015 was the imperative of putting consumers in the driver's seat of health services and information. Technology delivering customized health data and services has permanently disrupted the old model that kept them in the dark. Forward-looking pharma companies are rebuilding a direct link to the consumer that they had lost in marketing directly to doctors.

Some of the most important forces in the "who" of communication are Millennials, who prioritize health as a daily pursuit, and women, who according to a recent study from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), make 59 percent of the buying, hiring and firing decisions in the $6.5-trillion health care market.

Women have the influence: managing doctor visits and vaccinations, adherence to medications, and elderly and child care. They make important nutritional choices for her family -- experts now recognize that food is medicine and the need for home-cooked nutritionally sound meals is accelerating. And they've got the connections: 21 percent of social media is now health-related and rising - with women vital links to the family and community.

Yet our research cited in a recent post (Fortune: How the Medical Community Lets Women Down) shows women still being largely overlooked by the pharma, insurance and medical businesses that depend on them.

What: Trustruption Coming to Health Care

Key to closing that communication gap is providing trustworthy, accessible information.

Consumers need to trust their health advisors -- doctors, pharmacists, and insurance providers -- as they count on them to deliver care and important health information. We found that there is a great divide between consumers and providers when it comes to trust, and the fix is not that complicated. They want empathetic, needs-based, quality communication to help them keep themselves and their families healthy.

Health care has kept a complex "secret code" lacking transparency in products and prices. This year we have seen a number of Expedia-like apps emerge that are giving consumers the ability to shop for better pricing and quality in health care services. The industry is finally getting it: Health care is a customer service business!

Another obstacle to consumer trust is making the information that matters meaningful. We know the majority of consumer products purchasing decisions are made emotionally, so why would health care buying be any different? For the most part, the health care industry either "dumbs down" product information or keeps it dryly factual. Connecting to consumers means engaging both sides of the brain: capturing them with a deeper understanding of their motivations, vulnerabilities and emotions and giving them power with comprehensive rational information. Campaigns such as Dove and Always show the success in real life narratives, not lectures.

How: Wearables and Mobile Technology

Data in the form of wearables and other solutions brings extraordinary potential to personalize medicine and improve health.

This year consumer devices started moving beyond counting steps and calories. An Apple Watch app was introduced that measures duration and severity of an epileptic seizure. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University think that perhaps in 2016 that app will be able to warn when a seizure is coming.

Technology and digital communications are also proving to be powerful tools for populations predisposed to sharing and connectivity: namely the Millennials and women whose influence can lead to healthier behaviors and better outcomes.

Where: In the Home and Out in the Store

Similarly, retail approaches to improve the patient experience and speed access are fueling the rise in customer-centricity with a throwback to house calls or medical care in your local drug store.

There were dozens of Uber-style apps introduced that allow patients to schedule service and use their smart phone or tablet to visit with their provider, such as

Technology and digital communications are factoring into patients' selection of physicians. And we likely will see a more holistic approach to treatment - social workers, remodeling contractors, etc. - in the home, especially in economically challenged neighborhoods. A 2015 Centers for Disease Control study confirmed that zip code is more important than genetic code in predicting disease prevalence.

Why: Prevention is the New Definition of Health

That leads us to the future. To succeed in the fast evolving landscape of health care, it will be critical for health care companies and providers to "Know Thy Customer."

Most people under the age of 50 view health as wellness and nutrition. My colleagues at Kantar Health found that as consumers get younger, their perspectives on health get broader, with Millennials including mental health. We also know from the CTI study that women think of health more broadly than being free from illness and health risks: nearly 80 percent of women define it as "having spiritual and emotional well-being."

Connecting all of these key insights through trustworthy, personalized and always-on communication may be the prescription for better health in 2016 and beyond.

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