The health care industry has never made fast changes. But with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and the advent of the empowered online health care consumer, there are a number of ways that the system is poised for transformation in 2014.
Vitals CEO, Mitch Rothschild, outlines five key changes he predicts health care consumers will see in the coming year.
1. Wait Times Will Go Up. Over a million new people enrolled in the health care system in 2013, and many millions more are estimated to begin participating in 2014. Yet, medical resources are already stretched to capacity in this country. While Baby Boomers age and place greater demands on the health care system, medical schools have continued to graduate only a finite number of doctors each year. In fact, in the last half-century only one new medical school has opened in this country. Add to that a physician population that is aging rapidly. The American Medical Association found that by 2009, 45 percent of physicians were aged 55 and older.
The demand for even more primary care services will inevitably cause a major disruption to the system. For the unchanging supply of doctors, it will mean less time to spend with patients in examination rooms and with follow-up care. For patients, it will mean appointments will become harder to schedule and wait times longer.
Consider this: When Massachusetts implemented their health care reform, the average wait to get an appointment with a primary care doctor jumped from 39 days to 48 days. The Vitals Index, which tracks wait time data, also saw the average time a patient waits in the office creep up from 19 minutes, 48 seconds in 2010 to 20 minutes, 15 seconds in 2013.
2. Patients Will Continue to Love Their Doctors. While it may seem counterintuitive that patients will continue to love their physicians even as they make them wait longer, health care consumers are becoming more savvy about choosing a doctor with whom they can build a lasting relationship.
Today, more people go online first to research doctors to find that physician who is a better fit for them. In a recent Vitals Index survey, 56 percent of respondents said that they spend several days researching the right physician. And their work is paying off. Forty-five percent described their doctor as “the one.” That’s double the number of people who chose the same response in a similar survey last year.
“More people than ever realize that online resources can help them find a better match when it comes to finding the right doctor,” said Rothschild. “Sites like Vitals can help consumers identify the doctors with the characteristics they are looking for, whether it be a good bedside manner or specific hospital affiliations.”
3. Urgent Care and Alternate Care Center Use Will Continue To Grow. In 2014, consumers have more options to choose from than just their primary care physician when they want or need to receive care.
Urgent care centers are able to provide quick, walk in medical care for everything from skin irritations to the flu. Currently more than 9,000 urgent care facilities are operating today, with another 700 to 800 slated to open this coming year. At the same time, retailers like CVS and Walgreens have been opening more of their own clinics for access to low-cost care.
According to the Vitals Index, 41 percent of respondents indicated they have used urgent care centers for their health needs. Expect these figures to grow as consumers bear more of the brunt of medical costs and look for lower cost options.
“Alternative care centers are growing because they are convenient and provide easy, more affordable access to medical care and services,” said Rothschild. “Health care reform will fuel this further as patients become more aware that they can save up to 80 percent by avoiding an emergency room.”
A major driver for this sector of the medical care market is young adults. In a recent Vitals Index report, those between the ages of 18-29 were twice as likely to use alternative medical care facilities compared to adults over 50. Yet, they’re also less likely to have a primary care physician. Only 1 in 3 said they have a primary care doctor to rely on in the case of an emergency.
4. More Online Appointments. In 2005, only 6 percent of family doctors offered online appointment scheduling. Fast forward to 2013 and about 20 percent of practices allow online appointment requests either through patient portals or online scheduling services like Vitals. Our Vitals Index report indicates that today, 80 percent of health care consumers still prefer to make appointments “the old fashioned way” – over the phone. Changing demographics and the availability of technology to enable online scheduling will be key in changing consumer behavior.
“Just as the travel industry made a shift towards online reservations, doctor practices will follow suit,” said Rothschild. “It’s not only a less manual process for the office staff, it also allows patients to schedule office visits when convenient and without waiting on hold.”
5. Increase in the Power of Online Patient Reviews: Before we eat out or even choose a movie, many of us take to the web to read reviews and gain a level of confidence in our choice. And in 2014, more will turn to online reviews for comparing doctors, just like we do for other purchase decisions, as well.
Doctor reviews are finally coming into their own in 2014, thanks to a critical mass that has been building. When it comes to online reviews, most people believe that 5-6 reviews provide an accurate indicator of quality, according to a recent Vitals Index report. Vitals has more than 3 million reviews in its doctor database – one of the largest online collections.
And the reviews are having an impact. Almost 47 percent of the people who looked up a physician online felt differently about that doctor after viewing their profile. About 40 percent said they felt reassured or more comfortable with their choice after reading the review, while 7 percent said they felt the need to find a different doctor.
In fact, as an indicator of quality, patient reviews were considered just as important as a doctor’s years of experience when it came to determining a doctor’s qualifications – both were selected by 76 percent of all respondents.
“Over the past decade, the internet has transferred power from the buyer to the seller in several different consumer sectors,” said Rothschild. “We’re helping shape that transition in health care. Other patients’ feedback on doctors has become a critical part of the process of selecting a doctor.”