If there was a global contest on which country spends the most on healthcare, the United States would win. Sadly, this isn’t something to point to with pride. The US devotes a hefty 17.7 percent of its gross domestic product ($11,072 per capita in 2019) to health. Switzerland, in a distant second place, spends $8,000 per capita. Germany and Norway are tied for third, spending $6,600.
The US’s spending level is unsustainable, yet the costs of Americans’ health and wellness are expected to continue to rise steadily, well into the foreseeable future. In addition, the US population is aging, which means that even more resources will be directed to healthcare, not fewer.
How do we bring those costs under control? In medicine and technology, we don’t lack for innovation, and we need to leverage those ideas to reinvent how the system communicates with itself in order to drive efficiencies that can make its disparate parts operate more seamlessly, thereby increasing ease of access and quality of care for more and more people.
Communications as a Best Practice Within Health
On January 14, my wife and I received our first COVID-19 vaccinations. While she is a member of one HMO in Israel and I am a member of another, this didn’t matter. Two things happened, here in Israel, that signal a possible path to meeting US system challenges.
First, at the time we both received our initial injections, we were immediately provided with the date and specific time slot for our second dose. So, when February 4 rolled around, we both knew where and when we’d receive shot #2. No surprises.
Second, when we received our follow-up vaccinations, we were both able to immediately visit Israel’s Ministry of Health website, plug in our personal information (name, ID#), and receive printable PDFs of our “green passports,” which we now carry with us digitally in our phones. From the moment our HMO/provider scheduled and gave us our vaccinations, the Israeli Ministry of Health instantly and automatically updated our electronic medical records.
Having a closed-loop health system—where information is used to ensure prompt access to care – combined with the automation enabled by digital-health technology, has been a magical formula for this nation’s COVID-19 vaccination success. More than 40 percent of Israel’s population, including 80 percent of people above the age of 50, are now vaccinated. This approach, which drives the rate of vaccination up and the spiral in infections down, has been highlighted as a global best practice.
The system and the people the system serves are not at odds. The information and the system work together to facilitate care. At the heart of operations is an awareness that people do care, when it comes to information about their care, and will not tolerate being left in the dark. People are consumers of health information.
Healthcare Needs to Change What it Values
In the US, hospitals have historically been judged by the number of beds, the number of patients treated, the physicians in residence, and even by the square footage of the facility itself. But given the US healthcare spending crisis, perhaps hospitals should shift how they evaluate their successes, focusing instead on facilitating better access to care, more favorable outcomes, implementation of medtech innovations, and the quality of their customer service. We are now at a crossroads where innovations that can completely change the face of healthcare lie unused, waiting for acceptance by payers and providers.
Again, enter communications. Those of us in the world of health communications speak to many audiences with a stake in the healthcare community. It’s clear that each stakeholder has unique needs and demands that these needs are addressed as a priority. But it’s a system that often seems not to prioritize patients. One reason is that, developed without a master plan, US healthcare operates with an adherence to the status quo, and those who work within it are culturally less than enthusiastic about change. This means that the customer service enabled by emerging technology that’s so evident in retail and other aspects of consumers’ lives is notably absent in healthcare—or remains in delayed development.
The path to a solution may start by highlighting the problem. And that increased awareness and progress can only come through both educating and building awareness on the one hand, and listening on the other. It’s exciting to think that as health communicators, we can impact our future of care delivery in a meaningful way. When it comes together, it’s wonderful. When it’s broken, well, we see the results today.
In 2021, COVID-19 continues to challenge so many of our set systems and processes. From the very beginning, the pandemic has highlighted what is not working, as well as various methods—including through digital health—that we may be able to fix things. Meeting COVID-19’s challenges forced health innovators to bring their best thinking forward; it demanded that policymakers streamline the regulatory review process to advance screens, diagnostics and vaccines; it required competitors to collaborate.
Now, communicators must rise to the task.
When my wife and I received notice on our smartphones that it was time to appear for our vaccination appointments, we appreciated the possibilities that communication provides: useful, timely information, reduced worry and optimism. This was not an anomalous moment in public health; it was a small but potent reminder that given the right care and forethought, a healthcare system can meet people’s needs.
Communicators must look at these successes to spark conversation. And communicators can be the champions that health innovation needs to help improve people’s lives around the world.
Goel Jasper is managing partner at the Jerusalem office of Finn Partners.