By LEAH SHEPHERD, a Silver Spring, Md.-based freelance writer who
covers employee benefits. This article originally appeared on HREOnline, a sister publication of Risk & Insurance®.
About half of Americans are trying to become better-informed consumers of healthcare, as their out-of-pocket costs continue to grow, according to new data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) in Washington.
Nearly half (45 percent) of surveyed Americans said they tried to find health information about the advantages and disadvantages of different treatments, while only 14 percent tried to find information about the number of disciplinary actions taken against a doctor or hospital.
Twenty-eight percent searched for the full costs of different treatments, while 24 percent tried to find the costs of different doctors and hospitals.
"As companies shift healthcare costs to the individual, people are looking for ways to improve their quality of care, while controlling costs," said Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI's Health Research and Education Program. "They are researching information that will benefit them and help them make educated choices."
Women and individuals under age 45 were more likely to try to find information about the advantages and disadvantages of different treatment options, the full costs of different treatments, the costs of different doctors and hospitals, and the number of disciplinary actions taken against a doctor or hospital.
Ray Baumruk, a principal at Chicago-based consulting firm Aon Hewitt, said, "Women are still playing the primary decision-making role for healthcare decisions for the family. It follows that they would be more likely to seek information about that.
The EBRI data also indicates that minorities and lower-income individuals were more likely to search for cost information, as were individuals who said they were in fair or poor health. In addition, people who weren't satisfied with their health plan were more likely to seek information, compared with those who were extremely or very satisfied with their health plan.
The study found that individuals who had experienced an increase in premiums or cost sharing were also more likely to look for medical information about treatments and providers. EBRI surveyed 1,000 Americans, 21 or older. Nearly half (46 percent) were employed.
Baumruk said the findings are "good news" for employers, though he added that he'd like to see more than half of employees seek such information.
PREVENTING COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN
Many employers are analyzing their employee demographics to determine the best ways to communicate healthcare information.
"More and more," Baumruk said, "employers are trying to understand the different segments of their population and how they like to receive information."
Experts say it's helpful to communicate healthcare information via several different formats, including a company intranet, e-mails, blogs, in-person meetings and/or mailings to home.
Said Dr. Neil Smithline, director of clinical quality for New York-based Mercer's national medical audit division: "Solutions really need to be customized for the population you're dealing with. ... Some people are going to respond to one medium more than another. You test different methods, and you see what kind of response you get. It's a soft science."
Experts also stress the importance of reaching out to employee spouses with healthcare information. Coverage for dependents typically is a large portion of the employer's total healthcare expenses.
To determine what topics to highlight in your communication and education efforts, Fronstin said, "Just think about where you're spending the most money."
For example, if the bulk of your medical spending is going toward common conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity, then the organization may want to focus on information related to healthy eating, exercise and weight management.
While it's good that healthcare consumers are interested in research, it's also important to note that health information on the Internet isn't always accurate and reliable, experts say. That poses challenges for employers that are trying to make their employees better educated about their health.
Baumruk said that "employees and their dependents ... don't exactly know what information to trust."
He recommended steering employees toward reputable websites such as WebMD.com and MayoClinic.com. Smithline also recommended sites by top-tier academic institutions, such as the Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins University.
March 10, 2011
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