Healthcare Communicators Face Consumer Education Challenges

Gil Bashe Managing Partner, Health Finn Partners
Gil Bashe,
Managing Partner, Health
Finn Partners

Marketing executives working with the pharma, payer or provider sectors often are quoted that in today’s health marketplace, “The consumer is king.” If so, it’s a kingship with little authority and lacking the ability to govern or have a dominant voice over decisions.  Royalty—even without the right to rule—receives deferential regard from governing powers. This is not the case for U.S. consumers who remain adrift within the health system. Who is in charge of our health?

Results from a national Finn Futures Health poll   released today of 1,000 people show that a fragmented U.S. healthcare system influences consumers to navigate medical care on their own, placing convenience and cost in the forefront of decision making. If the consumer is King, then physicians are Ministers of Personal Health and pharmacists Chancellor of the Home Exchequer.

Today, consumers and physicians are not in long-maintained relationships. Some 51% of consumers change health plans every three years or fewer. Similarly, nearly half (45%) retain the same connection to their primary care doctor for three years or fewer. One of the results of this shuffling of health plans and doctors is that consumers must be the owners of their medical history and regimen. With long-standing, trusted health provider relationships becoming a revolving door, brand loyalty to prescription products also is taking a hit.

As Chancellor of the Home Exchequer, pharmacists are playing a larger role as patient advisors and health plan ambassadors. Of consumers surveyed, 43% reported that their pharmacist recommends an alternative medication to what their primary-care physician prescribed. Is there push-back to this suggestion? Nearly half of consumers almost always accept the pharmacist’s recommendation.

The driving factors for walking out with a different medication are: cost and convenience.  If the alternative medication co-pay is far less than the physician’s prescribed therapy, asking to consult with their physician is inconvenient and the consumer does not have sufficient information on saving co-pay cards or how formularies work in order to secure greater choice and savings.  If they have a question about their medication, three of four patients will consult with their physician or pharmacist first, then rely on a well-regarded third-party website; only 8% visit a medication-specific site.

For pharmaceutical marketers, public health officials and health plans looking to improve people’s well-being through preventive care, the frequent change of physicians is only one challenge.  The loss of the historic “Dr. Marcus Welby” connection is further complicated by the infrequency in which people see their family physicians. While 45% report that they see their doctor two times a year or more, 55% seek to avoid the doctor’s office altogether.  What brings them running is an urgent medical need. Even so, when or whom they choose to consult is influenced by cost and convenience of care.

Breaking through the information clutter and creating a compelling call-to-action often leads to pharma companies calling upon celebrities with a medical condition to share their stories and encourage the public to ask their physician for more information.

Does this infotainment encourage the King or Queen of the household TV channel clicker to act? It’s mixed. More than 55% report probably not. That does not mean communicators should abandon this approach. Rather, they should consider its value through the consumer and health plan experience.  If the celebrity-suggested medication is well-placed on a health-plan formulary and the cost to consumers (e.g., co-pay savings card) is part of the message, then their decision is filtered through the cost and convenience priorities.

Pharma companies, insurance plans, provider institutions, policymakers and patient groups (5P) often refer to the consumer as the center of their universe—their customer—the King. Royalty has authority and a defining voice. Consumers lack that power within the U.S. health system. While U.S. health sectors have different business objectives and public-health missions, there is a clear market force at work. Rather than having one health sector dominate, the authoritative voice that has emerged is consumerism.

The findings in our poll suggest that payer, provider, policy and pharmaceutical leaders have an opportunity to help consumers gain greater value from their health-dollar spend, with the goal of improving care and reducing cost.

Consumerism reigns within the U.S. health system. As the 5P sectors seek to educate and elevate the consumer as a full-fledged partner in navigating the health system successfully, the more these new customers will emerge to participate in their well-being.

Gil Bashe is managing partner, Health, Finn Partners. Follow him at: @Gil_Bashe