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Consumers interested in technology, but not using it now

Health insurers have spent millions on improving member outreach on the Web, but most people still don’t visit their health plans’ Web sites or believe their insurers support their health, according to the Microsoft Health Engagement Survey 2009, conducted by Kelton Research.

However, that sobering news is balanced with some positive findings. Survey respondents are interested in their health plans connecting with them via e-mail and phone for electronic coaching, but they want those services integrated into their lives.

Dennis Schmuland, MD, U.S. health insurance industry solutions director at Microsoft in Redmond, WA, says healthcare must control runaway medical cost growth. One way to do that is to improve chronic disease care and wring out costs. An example is to help members self-manage their conditions with the help of their health plan and assist those without chronic diseases to stay healthy.

The survey results show that health insurers cannot wait for consumers to self-manage their chronic conditions through stand-alone Web tools, Schmuland says. Instead, patients want providers and insurers to come together to help them improve their health habits and self-manage their conditions.

This will require insurers to implement a “new generation of technology designed to proactively improve health and coordinate care at the individual and community levels,” Schmuland says.

Survey respondents were not exactly positive about the current healthcare system. A majority of those surveyed see the healthcare system as fragmented and believe it doesn’t help them proactively manage their health (see Figure 1). Those who share that view are more likely to search general health Web sites for information rather than seeking health information from doctors or insurers (see Figure 2).

Schmuland says those who feel the system is fragmented tend to believe they are on their own when it comes to their health and healthcare.

The greater consumerism movement with insurers and employers pushing more out-of-pocket costs onto members has led insurers to invest in online components in hopes of creating more educated consumers. However, nearly half of those surveyed think health plans only support them when they need a doctor (see Figure 3).

This disconnect is creating barriers. Consumers are simply not visiting their health insurers’ Web sites. Although 82% of insurers provide Web sites with health and wellness information, nearly three-quarters of respondents visited their insurers’ Web sites fewer than six times per year. That includes 16% who never visited their insurers’ sites and another 16% who only went on the sites one or two times in the past year (see Figure 4).

Schmuland says people usually trust their doctors, but insurers, advisory hotlines, and association Web sites don’t enjoy the same level of trust.

“[Consumers] perceive the health plan cares about them only when they are sick,” says Schmuland.

Those who are actually going onto the sites are not using the breadth of information either. Nearly half of those surveyed go to find provider lists or coverage information. Only one-third check out information on health and wellness (see Figure 5). For those who actually search for health information, the survey found that many of those people do so only after a diagnosis. In other words, patients are conducting reactive health information searches rather than proactive wellness searches, according to the survey (see Figure 6).

They are also not going to insurers’ Web sites, but instead visit popular health sites, such as WebMD, or conduct searches on Google (see Figure 7).

Positives for health plans

The way health plans are implementing technology might not be working, but there are two positives from Microsoft’s survey: The vast majority of people surveyed said healthcare technological solutions are inviting (see Figure 8), and most respondents were interested in communicating with their insurer through e-mail.

More than half of respondents said they are interested in using e-mail to ask questions about benefits and coverage; receive feedback about their health; and get encouragement, reminders, and advice on diet and exercise (see Figure 9).

“They are saying ‘technology is inviting. I’m not afraid of it. I want to use technology,’ ” says Schmuland. This includes Web-based products and text messaging.

Microsoft officials say the survey shows that consumers want coaching through technology. This might be a cost-effective tool for health plans, which could reach more members through the use of an online coaching program.

Not only could health plans benefit from greater technology in the area of coaching, but disease management, wellness, and population health companies could also see great savings.

“This could change the ROI to their advantage,” says Schmuland.

Chad Pomeroy, vice president for innovation and eBusiness at WellPoint, Inc., in Indianapolis, says health plans must explore ways to quickly and easily access their healthcare information to make better decisions. “This research is a wake-up call to the health insurance industry to start untethering much of the online tools and services they’ve tied to stand-alone member self-service portals and weave them into the consumer’s daily digital world,” says Pomeroy.

Opportunities for health insurers

Although the survey showed that health insurers are not maximizing member communication on their Web sites, the findings provide a glimpse into what consumers want and how health plans can implement those solutions.

The first step for health plans is figuring out how to get into members’ digital lifestyles, then concentrate on content, says Hector M. Rodriguez, industry chief technology officer/technology strategies for Microsoft’s health plan industry group in Irvine, CA.

The survey shows that people want to integrate health information into technology, which they can seamlessly connect into their daily lives. An example is cell phone applications that track a person’s calories, fat, etc.

Schmuland says health plans need to reinvest their technology and self-service portal money. Insurers have added personal health records, communications, and videos, but they are not being integrated into members’ lives.

Connecting patients with other healthcare stakeholders leads to receiving the best care possible from the doctors, says Ted Epperly, MD, FAAFP, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians in Leawood, KS.

“When patients and their personal physicians work together and involve technologies that empower them to improve their health plans, they can lower their health risks and self-manage chronic conditions,” says Epperly. “It’s critical for providers, patients, and public and private payers to work as a team to improve health, well-being, and outcomes at the individual and community levels. Such collaboration would help control the runaway rate of medical costs that keeps health coverage beyond the financial means of every American.”

The online survey took place between March 10 and 17. Kelton interviewed 1,002 Americans over age 18.