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4 Things You Should Know from Aetna Consumer Study

By Mandy Roth  
   November 21, 2018

Consumers' perceptions of health are changing; here's a look at some surprising findings.

As health systems and physicians explore better ways to meet consumers' needs, they just might want to take a look at how their patients define health. It's changing in some unexpected ways. In addition, physicians should incorporate ways to assess health goals into their patient encounters, and digital tools may help.

Aetna’s inaugural Health Ambitions Study explores the transformation of care, examining consumers' health goals and preferences, as well as relationships among patients and providers in the evolving health landscape.

According to the report, consumers' perceptions of health are expanding, now encompassing a more holistic point of view that includes their mental health status and stress reduction. Yet many don’t feel they can talk to their doctor about these topics.  

"When people think about health and healthcare, the definition of what that means is increasing pretty dramatically," says Aetna’s Chief Digital Officer Firdaus Bhathena, whom I spoke to recently about the survey and other topics, such as how Aetna's merger with CVS will complement, not compete with health systems and physicians.

"One of the biggest learnings we got from the survey is that consumers are becoming way more conscious about nontraditional determinants of health that are not adequately addressed today," says Bhathena.

Aetna commissioned a third party to conduct the survey, which included 1,000 responses from consumers aged 18 or older, plus 400 physicians with at least two years of experience, including 200 primary care physicians and 200 specialists. Following are some compelling findings from the study.

1. Consumers Want Help with Stress Reduction and Mental Health

More than a third of consumers say stress reduction and mental health goals are important, but they need help to attain these goals. While 40% of consumers have a stress reduction health goal, and 36% of consumers have a mental health goal, they struggle to meet them. Some 64% report making "some or a little progress" toward meeting the former goal, and 51% report the same for the latter. They feel these objectives are too big to achieve without help.

Where do these elements factor into consumers' overall health goals?

  • 58% Have Goals Related to Eating Habits
  • 54% Fitness
  • 40% Stress Reduction
  • 39% Sleeping Habit
  • 36% Mental Health
  • 34% Financial Improvement
  • 19% Work/Life Balance
  • 6% Stop Smoking

2. Consumers Want Physicians to Talk About These Issues

"Physicians play a critical role in the network of support for patients’ holistic health, and emerging health delivery models provide opportunities for patients and physicians to collaborate," according to the report. Most people say it’s important that their primary care physician be familiar with their mental health history (86%) and their ability to deal with stress (84%). Additionally, 30% of all people say that direct conversations with a health and wellness specialist would help them achieve their health goals.

Yet physicians don't necessarily address these topics.

Just 23% of consumers communicate with their primary care physician to ask general health questions, and only 8% do so to discuss progress on their health goals.

"I can't remember a physical I've had in which my primary care physician asked me 'How's work going? Are you stressed out at work? What are your biggest challenges there?' " says Bhathena. "Behavioral health and mental health issues are huge today, but, as you can see from the survey, discussing health goals or general health questions don't seem to be reasons people feel like they can speak with a doctor."

3. Women Are Less Likely to Seek Physician Guidance or Follow Recommendations

There are significant differences between the way men and women perceive whether their physicians understand aspects of their personal lives that impact health, according to the report. More men than women say their doctors are familiar with their lifestyle habits, their health goals, and the supportive relationships in their lives.

Surprisingly, women seek out their primary care physicians less frequently than men for general health questions, and fewer women are likely to take their doctors’ recommendations. There is opportunity to change this dynamic because women place higher value than men on the following characteristics related to communication with their physicians:

  • 86%  of women place high value on help with understanding test , compared to 67% of men
  • 81% appreciate physicians talking in a way that is easy to understand, compared to 67% of men
  • 81% of women value it when their physician spends enough time with them, compared to 66% of men

4. Digital Tools Could Help Close the Gap

Digital tools may be one of the keys to help enhance communication between patients and health professionals.

  • 37% of respondents say digital messaging through email, text, or a patient portal would make them more likely to communicate with their doctors
  • 32% percent say virtual office visits would make them more likely to do so

"For both younger consumers and physicians," according to the report, "the value of digital communication resources is clear. People ages 18-50 are more likely to say apps would be helpful in making regular progress toward their health goals, compared to people ages 51 and over."

  • The majority of people ages 18-50 say they would be likely to use a confidential website or app to track health information
  • Millennials are already doing so, with 40% of people ages 18-34 currently using a computer or electronic diary and 30% using a wearable tracker to collect information about their personal health

Expectedly, younger physicians with 15 or fewer years of experience are more inclined to use digital communications than their older counterparts.

  • 23% of younger physicians would use digital messaging compared to 17% of those with more than 15 years of experience
  • 22% of younger physicians would use telehealth, compared to 15% of experienced doctors
  • 18% of those with 15 years or fewer years on the job would use virtual office visits, compared to 7% of more experienced professionals

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

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