We exist in a new economic paradigm, one unique to the digital age: more than ever, thanks to data and technology, customers are better informed and suppliers better able to meet their needs.

This is particularly evident in the healthcare sector, where the patient is increasingly an agent of change and decision-making.  As technology and data further integrate themselves with daily living, this trend may only increase.

Genetic research
Genome testing will present new opportunities and challenges for healthcare.

Where traditionally a patient was regarded as a passive recipient of esoteric medical attention delivered by a system of benevolent experts, today’s patient has access to a wealth of information – some accurate, some not – that encourages them to make personal choices about their health, and means that they do not implicitly trust the healthcare system.

In 2018, President of the Society for Participatory Medicine, Michael L. Millenson, wrote that doctors, “are losing some of their power, and will have to alter their behaviour to retain public trust”. This applies not only to doctors but to healthcare providers, medical device manufacturers, and policymakers alike.

The consumer of today believes that they can and should have agency over their health, and is more actively involved in diagnosing, making decisions about, and treating their medical issues, often seeking advice from a range of sources.

Internet tools like WebMD and PatientsLikeMe enable individuals to self-diagnose and thus dictate the direction of their health management, while the ubiquitous iPhone comes with an in-built health ‘app’ that tracks your health stats as you go about your day.

The concept of ‘patient-centred care’ has become enshrined in healthcare policy by the Australian Government, the WHO, the NHS and the American Department of Health and Human Services. It is part of the healthcare policy of all Australian state and territory governments, and forms the basis of what is considered ‘best practice’ in western healthcare systems.

The meaning of healthcare has evolved beyond the bilateral patient-provider relationship implied in ‘patient-centred care’. The sector is calling it ‘collaborative health’, and while it may sound like a vacuous buzzword, it has implications for any organisation that transacts in medical policies, goods and services.

The power of choice

Today’s healthcare consumer wants to make choices; they do not want to be told what to do. This affects the way an organisation promoting or providing healthcare goods and services should position itself from a communications perspective.

Strategically, healthcare providers will need to work more closely with their patients to establish a treatment plan that is individualised and understood every step of the way. An inability to do so exposes an organisation to reputational and operational risk.

With more information and data available than ever before, medical goods and services must market themselves as the “best choice” in the treatment of a medical condition, and must be prepared to prove this in an ever more competitive environment.

Customised medicine

Where medical goods are typically mass-produced and treatments often standardised, new technologies like 3D-Printing and genome-testing empower providers to diversify their offering, opening up fertile opportunities in relatively uncharted technological territory.

Treatments are increasingly individualised to suit the unique medical needs of their recipient; this massively complicates the system of regulation and control that governs healthcare.

Australia is a world leader in personalised medicine and healthcare – the Federal Government is pioneering the regulatory reform that will ensure the recipients of personalised medical goods and services are protected by robust systems of monitoring and control.

But the process of re-regulating the healthcare system is complicated, and leaves companies at the forefront of ground-breaking technologies in a precarious and confusing regulatory position.

The new frontier of healthcare is centred around networking of devices and sharing of data. These two concepts, while incredible, also create more risks. Software as a medical device (SaMD) regulatory consultations took place in early 2019, and medical device cyber security has already been discussed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration of Australia (TGA).

SaMD also raises the issue of artificial intelligence and the role it can play in analysing, diagnosing and, eventually, treating patients. This is an entirely unexplored area of medical science, and is fertile ground for regulatory discussions between interested parties and bodies like the TGA.

Prioritising the consumer

Medical practice, products and policies must be increasingly patient-focussed. Businesses and providers in the health sector must imagine patients as individuals who are likely to self-educate on the issues affecting them and make choices based on their own discoveries.

Social media and internet diagnostic tools, along with well-meaning advice published by unqualified medical commentators, have resulted in a proliferation of information online that obscures the boundaries between fact and fiction when it comes to health.

Myths prevail and businesses, advocacy groups and policymakers in the health sector must be able to educate effectively and become a trusted voice to succeed in this market.

Negotiating the healthcare policy space will be a significant challenge facing companies that are seeking to offer services at the cutting edge of technological innovation, and The Civic Group is well placed to assist in this endeavour.

Companies should familiarise themselves with their consumer base – their interests, their beliefs, their demographics – and communicate accordingly. It is no longer enough to rely on the assumed authority of being part of the healthcare system; the age of experts appears to be over.