Commentary: We all have sweet spots when it comes to something we know a lot about and in turn, know how to shop for and buy. Maybe it’s cars or travel services. Or perhaps it’s tech gadgets or groceries. It’s likely that purchasing health care is rarely high on the list for any of us, even for those of us in the business of health. Why is that, and what would enable people to become better and more confident consumers of health care?  

Aon Hewitt recently partnered with The National Business Group on Health and The Futures Company to conduct a series of in-depth discussion groups focused on employees’ perspectives, attitudes and behaviors toward health and health care. Participants had various types of employer-sponsored health plans from companies with at least 1,000 employees and at various life stages and health needs.

In these focus sessions, participants were asked to describe something they are particularly good at shopping for. They were further asked what tools or information enables them to be successful. What processes and decision-making criteria do they use? What gets in their way? What would make them even more successful? Finally, these participants were asked to apply these same practices to health care, including what tool and resources they would need to be great “consumers” of health care.

After some hesitation, participants zeroed in on how their personal product/service shopping expertise could be applied to health care. They identified what they would need to be a successful health care consumer. Unfortunately, much of what they identified are tools and resources they don’t have today:

  • Ability to quickly search, filter, and compare features and costs
  • Access to reviews and ratings from other people like them
  • Access to independent assessments from experts on specific health topics
  • Mobile-enabled apps and responsively designed sites
  • Comprehensive health and health care information collected or curated all in one place
  • Ability to try or test different plans or benefit options
  • Incentives and discounts for healthy activities or practices

Not surprisingly, many participants noted that health care and health services aren’t exactly like buying consumer goods and services. The consequences of poor choices in choosing a health plan are obviously riskier and more daunting than purchasing a pair of shoes. So, how can employers take this feedback and apply it to their own businesses?
To help employees down the path to confident health care consumer behavior, employers can:

  • Offer employees a fun, engaging quiz to create a personalized “health care” profile
  • Look into whether your health/wellness portal could store and analyze employees’ health history to help with health care decisions for upcoming year (within appropriate privacy limitations, of course)
  • Use and promote a comparison tool, like Expedia, that allows employees to compare costs across health care providers
  • Offer an app to easily locate local appropriate medical services nearby
  • Consolidate employees’ personal health information (e.g., health care spending, doctors’ visits, medications, diagnoses) with one password access
  • Offer incentives for taking part in health programs or buying healthy food

Ultimately, designing and marketing programs and tools that are meaningful and relevant to specific employer objectives and their unique workforce is the key to real change. It is clear that employees and their dependents are willing to become empowered, confident health care consumers. While employees are doing some things already, the way to greater success in health care navigation and purchasing still feels distant and confusing to them. Employers, along with their health partners, need to continue to find ways to facilitate and champion employees’ paths to better health and establish more confident buying behaviors.
Ray Baumruk is partner and employee research leader with consulting firm Aon Hewitt. He is based in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Joann Hall Swenson is partner and health engagement best practices leader with Aon Hewitt in Minneapolis.

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