Health data technology Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

In this first decade of the 21st century, consumers find themselves surrounded by a large and increasing volume of information on just about any topic of their choosing. And information about the ever-evolving field of health care is no exception. Whether one is attempting to choose a quality health care provider, decide on an insurance plan, learn the latest about a particular condition or procedure, or plot out a customized exercise and nutrition plan, multiple sources abound.

“Gone are the days when out-of-date health care magazines in a physician’s waiting room are considered adequate,” says Dr. Wendy A. Richards, national medical director for Aetna Small and Middle Market Business. “We have traded the simplicity of a few sources of information that weren’t updated frequently for more sophisticated technologies that provide real-time information on the latest cutting-edge health care discoveries, products and services.”

Smart Business spoke with Dr. Richards about health information technology and the tools health insurance companies provide their members to help them effectively manage the abundance of information available to them.

What vehicles do health insurance companies use to provide health care information?

In the past, sending material through the mail was the primary route used to get information to consumers. Today, many insurance companies are providing that same information and more via the Internet. A study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) showed that in 2007, 33 percent of Americans still used traditional sources such as print magazines, books and newspapers to obtain health care information. However, in that same year, 32 percent of Americans turned to the Internet for health information, up from 16 percent in 2001.

What type of information is provided?

Through secure insurance company Web sites, members can obtain basic information on their benefits plans such as coverage levels, status of claims, and the cost of provider services and medications. These Web sites also provide links to topics such as the latest diagnostic and treatment options for a variety of medical conditions. As disease prevention and wellness are now areas of growing interest to the American population, some insurance companies provide access to online tools that can be used to assess a member’s current health status and then provide customized educational information on health improvement and risk reduction.

With so much information available, is it easy for consumers to become confused?

When confronted with multiple sources of information, consumers may become confused about how to best use the information, which sources to trust, and how to approach their health care provider with questions that arise as a result of their research. In addition, completing a health risk assessment or populating an electronic personal health record may result in even more health care information being sent to members based on their health status, which can be both confusing and overwhelming.

What are insurers doing to help members manage the large amount of information from multiple sources?

Some insurance companies are using sophisticated technology that gathers data specific to each member and then acts as a ‘personalized search engine.’ Using data sources such as a member’s gender, age, ZIP code, benefits plan, and family and personal medical history to create a ‘picture’ of the member, this technology will then connect the user to health information, programs, providers and products customized to fit his or her needs and interests.

What is the future of health information technology? How will it impact the traditional patient-doctor relationship?

The 2007 HSC study showed that of adults who sought health information, more than half (52.4 percent) talked to a physician or other health professional about the information. Also, 50.8 percent found that the information changed their overall approach to maintaining health, and 79.9 percent found that the information helped them understand how to treat an illness or condition. Health information provided by insurance companies is not meant as a substitute for a medical evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. On the contrary, we hope that an informed and engaged consumer will be able to more effectively partner with health care providers to achieve optimal health.

DR. WENDY A. RICHARDS is national medical director for Aetna Small and Middle Market Business. Reach her at (312) 928-3307 or