What's the Difference between a Patient and a Consumer?

There is an ongoing debate about the role of the patient versus that of the consumer.  To suggest that a person seeking out healthcare is a consumer implies that healthcare can be evaluated in the same way as any other good or service; this idea in particular is a sticking point for many.

The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions speaks to this debate with its respective interpretations of the patient and the consumer.  In its 2011 Survey of Health Care Consumers: Global Report, the following two of five key takeaways describe the scenario that the “consumer” is currently facing:

#4. “Consumers do not believe they are in control of health care costs and are insecure about that.”

#5. “Consumer willingness to engage in managing their healthcare is evolving. Consumers support the idea but have yet to fully incorporate this as routine practice.”

This combination of circumstances is contributing to the collective transition from “patient” to health care “consumer” that Deloitte highlights in its report.  The former term connotes a somewhat passive recipient of medical treatment, while the latter indicates a proactive seeker of the best attainable health care solutions.  Naturally, emergency care is not the focus of this conversation, but rather it is the procedures that allow some lead time and comparing/contrasting of treatment options well in advance of the treatment date that are the emphasis here.  Does this mean that you’ll shop for health care like you shop for a car?  Not so much, but it may mean that you toggle and play with the criteria that used to be accepted as standard: cost, geography (domestic & international), type of facility (hospital vs. clinic), and available technology, amongst others. Or it may mean a change in your decision-making process; for instance, after you’ve talked to doctors, friends, and family, you continue to search for additional insight.  Do you turn to social media forums such as PatientsLikeMe.com where you identify with others based on common symptoms/conditions, or check out a doctor reviews website like HealthGrades.com?  While the answer may have previously been none of the above, it’s now becoming some or all of the above, a necessary change at a time when 19% in the US put off treatment and globally people are expressing dissatisfaction with their respective health care systems.  In light of this, perhaps it’s time to shop around.

by Ellery Bledsoe