In the United States, where the healthcare system is very expensive and notoriously unequal, new entrants to the health sector, who are focusing on patients as customers with needs, are beginning to shake up a sector that is widely regarded as far too traditional in its approach.

Healthcare: Newcomers jostling with traditional players for future US market

A report published last year by PWC’s Health Research Institute entitled ‘Healthcare’s new entrants: Who will be the industry’s found that of the 38 Fortune 50 companies with a major stake in healthcare, only 14 are traditional healthcare companies, while 24 are new entrants coming from a wide variety of sectors, including retail, finance, ICTs, telecommunications, consumer products and even the automotive industry. Their arrival on the healthcare scene has begun to disrupt what has hitherto been a rather cosy market. Samsung is a case in point. The South Korean conglomerate, the world’s second biggest smartphone manufacturer, has now incorporated a heart rate sensor into its Galaxy S5 model. You access the heart rate monitor function via the S Health app. Back in 2013, Internet giant Google founded the California Life Company (Calico), an R&D biotech company whose goal is to combat ageing and associated diseases.

The main advantage of these major players lies in their databases, which contain a huge amount of information on their customers. This gives them a head start when trying to work out what customers in the guise of patients really want. Big firms like these are however not the only companies muscling into the healthcare field; a good many startups are also rushing in. San Francisco-based Spruce Health has a telemedicine app called Spruce, which allows users to send photos to and connect with a physician to enable remote diagnosis and treatment of common medical conditions. Then there is Prevent, an online platform that provides prevention programmes to people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The good reputation which these new entrants have already earned among customers gives them considerable credibility in the new market. The only real question now is whether traditional healthcare providers such as hospitals, clinics and doctors’ practices should be competing or working hand-in-hand with the newcomers.

Americans prepared to change their approach to healthcare

The new entrants’ strategy is of course to treat patients as customers, and everything will therefore depend on consumer response to their offers.  The results of the PWC HRI survey among 1,000 US adults representing a cross-section of the population reveal that US healthcare customers are in fact quite prepared to give up the traditional approach to examination, diagnosis and treatment and shift to new methods. This is a huge opportunity for the new entrants, who are now stepping up their initiatives accordingly and providing alternative ways for customers to look after their own health: auto-diagnostic kits, smartphone apps, online platforms helping patients to obtain second opinions, etc. The HRI report reveals that over 50% of those polled would be happy to be examined remotely at home for minor conditions. Close to 60% would like to be able to diagnose a sore throat at home using a store-bought test kit, 55% of respondents would be happy to test their ‘vital signs’ using a device plugged into their smartphone, and the same percentage would agree to send a digital photo of a minor skin condition to a dermatologist in order to obtain advice. Slightly more novel, close to 43% of those surveyed would like to have their doctor monitor the results of their pacemaker remotely, using a wireless system.

It may come as no surprise to learn that the report indicates that when it comes to healthcare, the 35-54 age group are the most willing to adopt alternative approaches, the keenest being people whose health needs take a large slice of the household budget. As these new markets develop, doctors’ surgeries and other traditional healthcare practitioners could lose out in a big way.

Direct patient involvement

It seems certain that home medical treatment and diagnostics are set to become more widespread. In the near future, people will perhaps no longer have to rely on family doctors and local hospitals when they need medical advice, or even treatment. Some 64% of those polled in the HRI survey said they were open to alternative ways of obtaining diagnosis and treatment. In this new world, the term ‘patient’ is likely to disappear and be replaced by the ubiquitous word ‘consumer’. In addition to the ‘consumption’ aspect, this also however means far greater personal involvement on the part of the individual.

‘Home-made’ diagnosis will become easier and faster and, although this approach will still have its limitations, as the user will not possess the knowledge of professional healthcare providers, the consumer will nevertheless be able to ‘collaborate’ in his/her own treatment. During the diagnostic process consumers will act as a sort of co-worker.  For example, future users of the newly democratic healthcare system could be wirelessly connected to a tele-health system via telecommunications links. This type of system could mean that millions of patients will no longer have to go to a doctor’s surgery, clinic or other health centre. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, academic medical centres are now working to develop digital patient records, diagnoses and medical opinions, so that the health insurance system will be able to enable any and every customer to access high quality virtual healthcare.

By Anthéa Delpuech