Screaming for disruption: The digital divide between doctors and patients
Every doctor, pharmacist, or medical professional I meet often complains of people going online to ask their medical questions. If that is where patients go, how come that’s not where the doctors are?
Patients, or medical service customers, no longer seek service in the same way. They seek information on their own. Doctors and medical professionals know of this shift and the damage it causes, and yet, the industry refuses to change with it — To its detriment.
Disclaimer: I have no professional knowledge of the medical field. Take everything I write and model below as unproven conjecture.
Information asymmetry: Doctors sell services people need, but with high friction
In sales it used to be that the seller would be the arbiter of knowledge. When you went to buy a car, the sales person would know best, from its comforts and its speed, to its price. This information asymmetry is known as caveat emptor, or Let The Buyer Beware. In the past couple of decades the information asymmetry has shifted, and customers now go online to research what it is they buy and its price ahead of time. This is known as caveat venditor, or Let The Seller Beware.
Many businesses shifted with this market force to stay relevant, some even creating their own Internet stations where they take their customers to research online together.
In the medical world, it is my claim that the patients shifted, but the doctors have not.
To be fair, there is an inherent difference between a services based industry (buying time) and a commodity based industry. Patients rely on knowledge which personal research can not easily replicate.
Meaning, instead of research being a time-saving effort, in the medical industry, while I realize this isn’t always the case and in some cases the patients keep very up to date, this research activity is often a huge time waster, where the professional has to spend even more time in damage control, dissuading the customer from what conclusions they may have reached on their own.
The patients have a different process, misaligned with the medical providers’
Every doctor, pharmacist, or medical professional I meet often complains of people going online to ask their medical questions. They often draw the wrong conclusions (somehow, often that they supposedly have cancer), decide they want to buy a specific drug, or decide not to see a medical professional all together.
Further, there is always the unfair example of vaccines. People all over the world BELIEVE without a doubt vaccines have significant medical complications, such as autism, despite this being proven false. Risks exist with any treatment, but medical professionals are holding a tight line of protectionist strategies against this unyielding and dangerous trend: They deny any risk exists. The thinking goes that if any information about risks from vaccines is discussed, less people would vaccinate.
This may be true, but it is also true that people today make decisions by their online social circles and some by online research. We can’t control the first, but when we search for the latter there is an unbearable complexity to finding real data. In fact, much of what you’d find is controlled by the deniers. Although, I am pleased to note this specific issue has changed for the better since I last searched.
Going back to the time-based consulting analogy, in many cases there aren’t enough medical professionals to be able to provide the services required, which exacerbates the problem. And then, the service is based on how short the examination or consultation can be on the doctors’ side while still providing the value the patients seek, at the least time wasted for the patient. This works for some, while for others it proves insufficient, leaving patients feeling unsatisfied.
The Digital Divide
Information asymmetry may explain the difference in buying approaches, but it’s undeniably the medical professionals who have more knowledge, so the analogy can only go so far. That said, the fact that medical professionals are still who most people go to is in spite of the current system, not because of it. It does not mean the problem does not exist, only that it is easier to miss due to lack of effective alternatives; It’s difficult to get treatment without a doctor signing off on it.
The misalignment between seller and buyer can be explained by a different realm of reference — The Digital Divide.
The Digital Divide is a research topic on how access to technology and the Internet specifically changes us. I remember having to call a friend a decade ago to go check if a store is open, even with the Internet I did not trust they had a website, that it had the information on opening hours, or that these would have been up to date. Today, my first instinct would be different.
The Digital Divide is much larger than this one example though. A neighbourhood community with Internet access changes drastically in socio-economic status as compared with another one without.
It seems to me that the medical profession, with a marked exclusion of advertising by drug companies, lives in a different decade as far as The Digital Divide goes, while their customers have moved on.
In essence, the power structure is being inverted regardless of who actually holds the power (or in this case, knowledge). If you find a better term or more descriptive analogy, please — Do share it with me.
Time for disruption
There are some interesting startups in the medical field, from those that provide service over video chat, to those that use your phone’s camera to help you diagnose and treat various conditions.
There are also many efforts by doctors and medical professionals to reach out to the community, with new community clinics and other efforts opening up, holding discussions with patients over email, chat, and other web systems.
However, I am not personally aware of anyone who is dealing with the asymmetry I describe above directly, where the doctors hold the knowledge but the patients seek it elsewhere first, in a place where the doctors are not. I’d love to find out someone is indeed doing something in this space. It’s definitely high time someone does.
The challenge of providing medical services online
I don’t claim this is an easy challenge. On the Internet we’d face issues of misunderstood communication, legal liability, and limited physical examination. My suggestion is not necessarily to provide with full medical services online, but rather to be there.
A friend of mine, Marc Sachs, often tells the story of how he kept asking his kids to take out the trash. One day he’s done so using their own preferred method of communication — Instant messaging — And they immediately came downstairs to do so.
How do we disrupt the industry?
The challenge is how — What would be a disruptive way by which we could cope with this asymmetry? I’d be happy to hear people’s ideas on the subject.
#medical #doctors #patients #informationasymmetry #thedigitaldivide #sales #disruption