Connected health and the rise of the patient-consumer: How to achieve better care at a lower cost?

By William Frist
Health Affairs, February 2014

America’s health care delivery sector stands at a tipping point—a convergence of a growing, graying, and highly consumptive population with increasingly limited financial and human capital resources.

Policy makers naturally gravitate toward government to provide the framework for solutions to this worsening scenario…. I’ve spent about equal time in government and the private health sector, and I believe there are two other levers that are more likely to be effective.

The first lever is the rapid ascent of the newly empowered consumer, equipped for the first time with actionable knowledge that can affect his or her health. The second consists of magnificent advances in information technology (IT). The exponential growth and application of these technologies are revolutionizing, in a very short period of time, the automation, connectivity, decision support, and mining of health information and data, which together will radically transform and improve health care delivery.

These two forces are just beginning to come of age. Neither was a significant driver of health care value just three years ago. Today their potential is enormous. Together, the empowered consumer and rapidly advancing health IT will channel our chaotic, fragmented, and wasteful health care sector toward a more seamless, transparent, accountable, and efficient system. They will answer the underlying question of how we will get better care for less cost. They will be the primary keys for game-changing, value-driven reform, where provider compensation and payments are determined not by the type and number of specific services rendered but by the quality and outcomes of care provided.

…. Government is slow to change and even slower to self-correct. …But what America needs now is more health for less money…. And in that effort, the newly empowered consumer is likely to lead the way.

In this article, William Frist, a former Republican senator from Tennessee, claims “the newly empowered consumer” will play the leading role in health care reform. According to Frist, “consumers” recently acquired immense power thanks to “magnificent advances in information technology (IT).” The “empowered consumer” aided by health IT will lead us to a “more seamless, transparent, accountable and efficient system.”

Why couldn’t Frist lower his decibel level a notch and simply call our attention to recent developments in HIT that have some potential to improve health and perhaps lower costs? Why all the undocumented hype?

In Frist’s case, it appears his conservative ideology is at work. He notes early in his paper that government is pokey and cannot be expected to play a leading role in health care reform. If he can draw readers into his fantasies about patients with the powers of comic book figures, readers might be less likely to ask government to play a leading role in solving the health care crisis.

But Frist’s conservative values can’t be the entire explanation because thousands of American health policy experts with no discernible political leanings, and many Democrats, talk just like him. Frist’s article represents a common style of argument utilized by American health policy researchers as well as the politicians who listen to them. Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Newt Gingrich and Tommy Thompson are other examples of politicians who have been influenced by managed-care speak.

In the rest of this comment I will use Frist’s paper as a case study with which to elucidate three key elements of this style.

First, the subjects of discussion – the mechanisms that will allegedly ameliorate the crisis – are described so abstractly it is difficult to know how to refute or confirm the claims made for them. The “accountable care organization” is a prominent example. The “empowered consumer” is another. Frist offers us not one example of how any of us would know if we fall into the category of “empowered,” and he is vague about how “rapidly advancing health IT” will confer “power” upon patients.

If Frist had simply argued that Americans are becoming more knowledgeable about their health, we might quibble about how true that is but we wouldn’t be baffled by his argument. But he speaks of more “power,” not more knowledge. Does he mean that thanks to growing access to medical records via computers, for example, that patients now have the power to browbeat insurance companies into paying for their medical care if the insurance company refuses? Does he mean that because of the numerous apps one can buy to monitor calories consumed, steps walked per day, etc. that patients have the power to force drug companies and hospitals to lower their prices?

A second characteristic of managed-care speak is the use of value-laden labels to refer to the aforementioned amorphous concepts. As Ted Marmor has noted on numerous occasions, and as he and Jonathan Oberlander noted in a recent paper, the vague concepts advanced by American health policy experts often bear labels designed to persuade rather than enlighten. “Empowered consumers” and “seamless” care are two examples from Frist’s paper. “Accountable care,” “coordinated care,” and “integrated delivery systems” are common examples one could find in myriad other articles. What do those labels mean? And who could be in favor of their opposites, for example, “unaccountable care” or “disempowered patients”?

A third common feature of the style I’m talking about is the confidence with which conclusions are asserted even though no evidence is marshaled to support the claim, or the evidence cited is incomplete, cherry-picked, or flat wrong. In Frist’s case, he could have limited his argument to a simple statement that the spread of electronic medical records and mobile phones and the invention of numerous apps might create a better informed patient among the segment of the population that can afford access to the Internet and myriad apps. But he did not do that. Instead he got out his trumpet and heralded the coming of a new age.

Those three features – poorly defined concepts, value-laden names for these concepts, and exaggerated claims for them – coupled with their ubiquitousness are lethal for busy readers, especially busy politicians who don’t have time to give definitions a reality check and to read papers cited in endnotes to see if they say what the writer said they said. The net effect is a form “truthiness,” to borrow Stephen Colbert’s wonderful label for claims that seem to be true but aren’t.

This “truthiness” – the illusion that what experts like Frist say is based on science – is a major obstacle to a productive public debate about how to solve the health care crisis, and to the enactment of a single-payer system. It lends cover to politicians who want to take single-payer off the table.