LYNDHURST, N.J. — It is no secret that the healthcare industry is undergoing great change, fueled by the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the advent of the empowered online healthcare consumer. And given the changing landscape, Vitals, a provider of online health tools, has outlined five key predictions for the coming year.
According to Vitals CEO Mitch Rothschild, five key changes that healthcare consumers will see in the coming year are —
- Wait Times Will Go Up. More than a million new people enrolled in the healthcare 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 healthcare 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% of physicians were ages 55 years 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 healthcare 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.
- 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, healthcare 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% 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.
- 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, Vitals stated. According to the Vitals Index, 41% 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, Vitals noted. “Alternative care centers are growing because they are convenient and provide easy, more affordable access to medical care and services,” Rothschild stated. “Healthcare reform will fuel this further as patients become more aware that they can save up to 80% 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 years and 29 years were twice as likely to use alternative medical care facilities compared to adults older than 50 years. Yet, they’re also less likely to have a primary care physician. Only 1-out-of-3 said they have a primary care doctor to rely on in the case of an emergency.
- More Online Appointments. In 2005, only 6% of family doctors offered online appointment scheduling. Fast forward to 2013 and about 20% of practices allow online appointment requests either through patient portals or online scheduling services. The Vitals Index report indicates that today, 80% of healthcare 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,” Rothschild added. “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.”
- Increase in the Power of Online Patient Reviews. In 2014, more will turn to online reviews for comparing doctors, just like we do for other purchase decisions. 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 five to six reviews provide an accurate indicator of quality, according to a recent Vitals Index report. And the reviews are having an impact. Almost 47% of the people who looked up a physician online felt differently about that doctor after viewing their profile. About 40% said they felt reassured or more comfortable with their choice after reading the review, while 7% 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% of all respondents.