Column | Consumerism

The consumerism imperative in 2020: coming full circle

Column | Consumerism

The consumerism imperative in 2020: coming full circle

As the year draws to a close, I’m reflecting on its beginning.

In January, I discussed the hard truths of our country’s progress (or lack thereof) toward a sustainable, transparent healthcare system characterized by consumer-friendly financial practices. In February, after making a call to action for healthcare finance leaders, I thought I was on a roll. And then, well, we all know what happened next. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, HFMA members were compelled to put non-urgent initiatives on hold. It was, and still is, “all hands on deck” to deal with the most serious public health emergency in living memory.

Although providers had to put consumerism initiatives on the back burner, the fallout from slow adoption of consumer-friendly business practices continued. People seeking testing and treatment for COVID-19 encountered the familiar frustration of uncertainty about their financial responsibility. Meanwhile, the federal government’s controversial plans to mandate disclosure of payer-specific negotiated rates withstood legal challenges, and the Jan. 1 implementation date is imminent. The alternative route to compliance? Adding a price transparency tool to a hospital website, which is aligned with the HFMA Price Transparency Task Force recommendations dating back to 2014.

But my message today isn’t about compliance. Because consumer expectations for more price transparency won’t end with these or any other regulations, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the broader societal push for a consumer-centered approach to healthcare will continue. The real question is whether legacy stakeholders can meet this moment.

I recently conducted a workshop, together with author and physician leader Zeev Neuwirth, MD, at a virtual conference sponsored by HFMA’s First Illinois chapter. Neuwirth’s vision is to reorient healthcare to fundamentally and radically improve how consumers purchase, utilize, experience and benefit from it. He cautions that the technology and retail giants entering healthcare are customer-oriented and know how to truly be consumer-centric. If legacy healthcare stakeholders don’t realize that, Neuwirth says, they’ll become increasingly less relevant.

I believe that Neuwirth’s message is spot on. Furthermore, it’s not just the Googles, Amazons and CVSs of the world that are disrupting healthcare. Many other market entrants are not household words — yet. Venture capital funding is flowing to healthcare innovators in record amounts. By the end of the third quarter, 2020 was already the largest funding year ever for digital health.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand this year has been incredibly difficult for everyone who works in healthcare. No amount of kudos can ever be adequate. As we close out the year, though, we also should realize that our industry’s long-standing consumerism challenges remain. Disrupters, many of whom are unencumbered by the demands of acute and emergent care, have not paused for the pandemic. Consumers haven’t hit the pause button on their expectations, either. Instead, the pandemic has served as an accelerant. That’s why my message from pre-pandemic times has not changed. Let’s lead the change to consumer-friendly clinical and financial practices instead of allowing others to do it for us. 

About the Author

Joseph J. Fifer, FHFMA, CPA,

is president and CEO, HFMA, Westchester, Ill.

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