In a world where patients usually have no clue how much a given procedure or medication actually costs, new initiatives are popping up to offer consumers incentives to take health care costs into their own hands. And since most consumers don't actually pay the real cost of care for themselves--as it's generally covered by insurance--the idea is to stop insulating them from the real cost of things and to incentivize them to choose cheaper options, thereby saving money for insurers and employers alike.
One initiative working to make patients smarter consumers is Vitals SmartShopper, which describes itself as "a proven, incentives and analytics-based health care shopping tool." Basically, it's a marketplace where consumers can go online to compare the prices of various doctors and other vendors. The program aims to save money for employers by reducing costs on the insurance side, and pass on those incentives to the consumers by providing coupons and discounts when they choose cheaper care options for themselves. The company processed more than $1 million in incentive rebates to consumers last year, said Smartshopper Vice President Rob Graybill at the recent Internet Week Conference in New York.
Another area that's growing quickly to save money for the health ecosystem is telemedicine, said Steve Halper, senior vice president of equity research at FBR Capital Markets, a banking, advisory and research firm focusing on industries including healthcare. More brands are "embedding this [telemedicine] function in their benefit designs so employees can, for a very nominal amount of money, do a video consult with a network of physicians," he said. "That's very interesting and a great way to reduce costs." In general, consumers are craving more convenience and reduced costs -- freedom from a stuffy doctor's office that schedules appointments a month out and leaves patients with a hefty tab. As an example, he cites the emerging growth of the CVS mini clinics; they take insurance, but people are attracted to the offering, because they're both cheap and convenient. By the same token, Halper says, urgent care is evolving in ways that empower customers to manage their own healthcare costs, even when they're not the ones picking up the bill at the end of the day.
Beyond rebates and coupons, employees have an inherent incentive to reduce their own health care costs, because new styles of plans make them more responsible, argued Halper.