Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Affordable Health Care


In my opinion, our inalienable rights should be restated as the title of this post suggests.  But despite my wishful thinking, health care costs continue to rise.  By 2030, the boomer generation will place 57.8 million people in the 66-84 age group, further burdening current government funding for Medicare.  The outlook is bleak, and the system needs fixing.  One idea for lowering health care costs is to move health services out of the clinic, and into the home.  New web-based services and personal diagnostic equipment now enable patients to receive medical care from the comfort of their living room.  Is it realistic this model will reduce costs and stick?  I'll cover the web-based services in this post, and follow up with another post on home diagnostic equipment. Web-based doctor's appointments are now available in several states.  For example, at $10 per month, and $50 per consultation, SwiftMD offers an online health care plan in New York and New Jersey.  Within 30 minutes of scheduling an appointment, subscribers have either a phone conversation or an online video chat with an available physician.  If prescriptions are required, the physician sends the request electronically to the pharmacy of the subscriber's choice.  A step further in service, Hello Health adds conveniences such as the ability to text, instant message, or tweet your doctor, and also offers clinic appointments or house calls for more serious conditions.  Both SwiftMD and Hello Health do not cover major medical expenses, so if the subscriber has to go to the emergency room or be admitted to the hospital, the cost is theirs.  Also, neither accepts insurance, but compared to ever increasing health insurance premiums and the number of uninsured patients, an affordable "pay for what you need" model may just work.

A recent article highlighted the services of Hello Health, and discussed the ways electronic media is reshaping health care.  More important than describing cool, new ways to communicate with your doctor, and boutique concierge services offered by modern clinics, the article does a fine job pointing out the importance of social networking in the future of health care.  Physicians use websites such as Sermo and UpToDate to stay abreast of advances in health care and treatment, as well as to network with other doctors in the field.  Patients, on the other hand, have traditionally been stuck with tools such as WebMD, NIH's MedlinePlus, and the Mayo Clinic site, all of which just give background information on diseases, and pave the way for dangerous self-diagnosis.

Such patient websites provide little help to the proactive patient who is curious if others with a certain condition are experiencing similar symptoms or medication side effects.  Enter PatientsLikeMe, a website that focuses on user-generated data (via self monitoring and reporting) and lets others know what to expect on the road ahead.  PatientsLikeMe provides a useful social networking community if you are already diagnosed with a condition, but what if you are a 40-something male with a BMI of 28, blood pressure at 135/85, and recently diagnosed with metabolic syndrome?  Is there anyone out there with similar stats that can offer information about what regiments have kept them healthy?  In other words, let's not wait until we are diagnosed with heart failure to seek out advice from our peers -- we need social networking tools when we are still just "at-risk" for the disease.

While electronic access to your physician is much cheaper than going to an office visit, to truly drive health care costs down, we need to increase the personal responsibility of the public -- we need to heighten our medical knowledge, track our own body metrics, and pool our data.  Social networking sites provide the necessary framework to disseminate such information and personal experiences across large populations.  Armed with the proper information, patients will be able to make their own decisions about their health.  Now that's a true health care revolution -- so go tweet your way to better health.  I'll discuss home diagnostic testing soon...