Lowering the Barriers to Quality Health Care
I am helping design an online health community for Alzheimer’s caregivers, and one of the concerns we have is lowering the barriers to production and consumption of user-generated content. There are many sites that have only expert-generated content, but our theory is that caregivers learn from and support each other, and that writing about their caregiving experiences can be both cathartic and empowering since they are helping others. The challenges are how to design this effectively, how to get people using the site, and how to manage information quality.
This notion of lowering barriers came to mind as well when I read about how Massachusetts’ Public Health Council approved the opening of MinuteClinics at CVS. The clinics, staffed by nurse practitioners, are intended for the treatment of “minor problems such as sore throats, ear infections, and poison ivy, but not chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes, nor serious emergencies.” There is a reported shortage of primary care doctors in Massachusetts, leading to overburdened hospital emergency rooms. What these MinuteClinics seem to have the potential to do is lower the barriers to receiving competent professional care.
Apparently there are many retailers and employers offering on-site clinics. Carl Mercurio, President, Corporate Research Group, commented that their “report doesn’t make any clinical observations or draw any conclusions about the quality of care delivered by retail clinics. It’s really a report about the economics of these clinics as a business model. Our primary conclusion is that retail clinics are sustaining heavy economic losses and will not reach their near-term expansion goals without a serious shakeout and industry consolidation. However, the retail clinic concept will survive in our view as a limited solution to a very specific problem, i.e., providing convenient low-cost care for a limited number of acute ailments. Overall, my understanding is that nurse practitioners are very well qualified to deliver the type of care administered in retail settings. However, I don’t have any particular insights to support or refute that view.”
A Pew Report on Online Health Search 2006 found that 80% of Internet users in the US search for health information, and only “15% of health seekers say they ‘always’ check the source and date of the health information they find online”, or “about 85 million Americans [are] gathering health advice online without consistently examining the quality indicators of the information they find.”
The barriers to performing health searches are low. Information literacy and health literacy skills are also low for far too many people. Since quality is a huge problem, arguably more so with medical information that any other type of information, effective branding is paramount. While I was initially not enthusiastic about the concept of clinics in stores, I believe they may serve an important need for many and are preferable to poor quality online advice, long emergency room waits, or ignoring a medical problem.