Where Health Conversations Should Start and End: the Patient

By Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

Nearly every day, it seems, the research world brings us new, high-tech treatments for diseases once thought incurable. But with these advances comes the unavoidable question of cost: Just what are “fair” prices for these new drugs or treatments — and how do manufacturers, insurers, doctors and patients find that middle ground, with all their varying interests?

It’s a valid, vexing question. In fact, it’s one that experts at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting are tackling this week in Davos, Switzerland. But that’s not where the conversation ends — or, frankly, where it begins.

What matters most in any healthcare situation is that patients get what they want and need. Too often, they don’t, and the reason isn’t necessarily cost. Sometimes it’s simply the lack of reliable information available to help them make informed decisions with their providers about the best treatments, and the value of those treatments.

For example, a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that our most vulnerable healthcare consumers struggle to understand their options, their costs, and even the language around their care. Results of that study, “Right Place, Right Time,” by Oliver Wyman and the Altarum Institute, were featured at another Davos panel this week. In short, the study revealed a simple, problematic truth: Vulnerable consumers experience healthcare differently — whether it is feeling disrespected by doctors, having trouble finding information, or fearing stigmatization for being immigrants.

If we want better health — and yes, lower costs in a nation that spends more on health care per person than any other advanced nation — this is a finding we should all pay attention to. How can we best employ any treatment, from generic medications to gene therapy, if those among us with the highest needs aren’t even able to get the information they need to make informed decisions?

The good news is, insurers and clinicians are not alone in facing this challenge. Realizing that everyone’s health affects us all, communities around the nation are coming together around action plans for more informed consumers and better health. In the Columbia Gorge region in Oregon and Washington, 39 organizations took part in a health assessment before setting collective priorities. Now, health care and social service workers are helping their most vulnerable residents by screening for food insecurity and issuing vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables, which can be used at dozens of local farmers’ markets and grocery stores. The area is also expanding its network of community health workers, who help poor residents navigate issues outside the exam room, like educational plans and budgeting.

There will always be hard questions when it comes to the value of health care. But our first charge is to ensure that patients are respected, well-informed, and getting care that addresses their specific needs, not a “one size fits all” approach. That responsibility extends to the community, where everyone has a role in creating a Culture of Health, from bodega owners to housing officials. When a community truly supports its most vulnerable residents, they can start to trust in it — and that’s the first step on the road to the healthiest possible life.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey is the CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

This piece appeared on LinkedIn on January 18, 2017