Is Self-service Good for Healthcare?

Sept. 1, 2007

Do Americans like self-service? I do. I know others that do. I also know people that miss the man with the star that pumped the gas and checked the oil. I was in the self-checkout line of a major retailer just yesterday listening to the elderly married couple behind me grouse about self-checkout lines, even though they were standing in one. The husband resented having to scan the items himself and his wife worried about fewer jobs for cashiers. However, neither was willing to go stand in the longer non-automated lines. I marveled at the dichotomy.

Do Americans like self-service? I do. I know others that do. I also know people that miss the man with the star that pumped the gas and checked the oil. I was in the self-checkout line of a major retailer just yesterday listening to the elderly married couple behind me grouse about self-checkout lines, even though they were standing in one. The husband resented having to scan the items himself and his wife worried about fewer jobs for cashiers. However, neither was willing to go stand in the longer non-automated lines. I marveled at the dichotomy.

 Self-service changed America. What began at the turn of the century with automats evolved into modern vending machines, self-pump gas stations, ATMs and automated airline check-in kiosks. Is healthcare on the same path?

 Five years ago, it was rare to hear someone over 60 discussing computers or the Internet. Today, many elderly choose their doctors based on whether the practice has a portal they can use to set appointments and refill prescriptions. Today’s geriatrics are more self-sufficient and active and becoming a savvy bunch of healthcare shoppers. They’ve discovered the Internet and the value of being an educated healthcare consumer. I’ve overheard geriatrics exchanging Web site addresses, where they study the medications being prescribed to them. They’re empowered and they want more. More control over their use of the healthcare system and more feedback from their providers. More options when it comes to their health plans and more focus on their unique needs.

 As the fastest growing population in America, Boomers wield enormous purchasing power. That, coupled with Medicare’ s intention to go completely electronic within a few years, is having a measurable affect on healthcare organizations and physicians practices. These days, one is more likely to receive a recorded prompt directing patients to a practice’ s portal than a real voice, unless one is willing to sit through a recitation of the menu items to reach the announcement telling which key to press to reach an operator—who may not even be in the practice’ s office. Sense the negative reinforcement at work there?

 Dozens of new online healthcare portals pop up everyday. Soon, physicians’ practices won’ t be competitive without an online portal. Nor will hospitals or health plans, because consumer demand will require them. That’ s the beauty of our system.

 For years I’ ve sought the private industry solution to our healthcare dilemma. Self-service could be the key, though it may require a radical restructuring of healthcare delivery in America. However, given the push for transparency and consumerism in healthcare, we may be further along than we realize. Home health and disease management technology is already there, with monitoring devices connected by cellular technology to care providers and automated monitoring systems that send out alerts when, for example, a diabetic’ s readings are out of range. I want my cholesterol monitored in the same manner, with the results posted to my personal online physician’ s practice portal. It’ d save me a lot of trips to the doctor’ s office, and now that insurance plans are beginning to remit for the time doctors spend on the Internet or telephone providing care, it may become a reality—and none too soon.

 The Boomer wave approaches.

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