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More About Us, Less About Them

By Kim Bellard, September 1, 2015

Something Amazon just did is worth those of us in health care paying attention to.  It was the layoff of "dozens" of engineers at Lab126, Amazon's hardware development center, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal.  These were the first layoffs in the division's history.

Lab126 is responsible for Amazon's consumer devices, including their very successful Kindle e-reader and the new Fire TV. What makes this is a cautionary tale for the rest of us is that even Amazon -- which is noted for their prowess with their online consumer experience -- can't necessarily get the physical consumer experience right.  I think Wired captured the problem best, asserting that Amazon's consumer devices would have been more successful "if Amazon focused more on consumers, and less on consuming."

Now perhaps the relevance to health care may be clearer.

Consumer devices are all the rage in health care.  The global mHealth market is predicted to be $49b by 2020, with some 73 million units shipped in 2015 and an eye-opening CAGR of 47.9% expected from 2013 to 2020 (although other analysts already see slowing demand).

At the core of Amazon's devices is the goal to, well, get consumers to buy more stuff from Amazon.  
So I wonder: what is the goal of consumer devices in health care?  Are they intended to help us achieve better health -- or to consume more health care services?  I hope for the former but I fear it may end up being the latter.

I was struck a couple of weeks ago by an opinion piece in JAMA: "Obstacles to Developing Cost-Lowering Health Technology."  It's authors, doctors Kellerman and Desai, note that:

The inventor’s dilemma is that creating a product that improves health is not enough; the product must also be able to generate a healthy return on investment. In the United States, the surest way to generate a healthy return on investment is to increase health care spending, not reduce it.

Think about the terminology used in health care.  It speaks volumes about the underlying culture and its attitudes towards us.  Health care providers call us "patients."  Health plans call us "members."  Medicare and Medicaid call us "beneficiaries."    The name for one of the newest fads -- "patient centered medical homes" -- serves to remind us that we're not normally considered the center of our health care, and that the focus is on our medical care, not our health.

At least "consumer-directed health plans" pay lip service to us being in charge.

I'm all for people and organizations making money in health care, but I don't like to be seen as some kind of ATM for them either.  The health care industry needs to realize that we don't really want to be its customers, don't want to need to consume their services, and certainly don't want to have to be unduly patient about it when we do. 

What we want is to be healthy.  Give us the devices, services, and experiences that make that as simple as possible and then you can call us whatever you want.

This post is an abridged version of the posting in Kim Bellard’s blogsite. Click here to read the full posting

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