On the Way to Better Health, a Call to Educate the Consumer With Complete and Useful Information

Jan 24, 2014, 2:41 PM, Posted by

“An educated consumer is our best customer...”

A big sign with these words welcomed me and others into the local department store, Syms. I’m definitely not the only one who noticed. In fact, an educated consumer of this blog would know that it resonated with Susan Dentzer as well.

As a child, this statement baffled me. On the plus side, pondering its meaning gave me something to do during seemingly interminable shopping expeditions with my parents. Why, I wondered, does a department store care about how much consumers know? Don’t they just want them to buy clothes?

Now I get it.

And now I realize this is a perfect way to describe the “best” consumers in a culture of health as well—that they have access to reliable, timely, easily digestible information about their health care so that they can make well-educated decisions.

Back when I was experiencing these boring shopping adventures as a kid, people didn’t have much of an opportunity to be clever consumers of health care. There was little to no information available to educate themselves. Fortunately, all of that is changing.

In November, amidst all of the stories about the Affordable Care Act that revolved around technical glitches and enrollment numbers, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released an important, if little-heralded, notice. In it, the federal agency describes guidelines and measures it plans to use to rate the cost and quality of all health insurance plans in all of the new health insurance marketplaces across the country beginning in 2016.

This is big.

In just a few years, consumers will have access to information about the cost and quality of the health care plans in the marketplaces. This information will be invaluable to all consumers, and in particular those who are new to health insurance. The rating system will also demonstrate to everyone that cost and quality information is equally important in health care decision making.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has long supported efforts to improve transparency and provide clear and actionable information to consumers about the cost and quality of their care. Based on this experience, as well as on direct input from a variety of grantees, RWJF submitted a comment on the notice to CMS this week. We recommend that, in addition to what the notice proposes, CMS also grade the new marketplace plans on:

  1. How hard they are working to engage consumers in their care and treatment. Research indicates that the more consumers care about their care, the better their health outcomes tend to be.
  2. How well they are doing in improving the health of all of their members. As an added benefit, this grade category might also encourage health plans to partner with other entities whose work influences health by impacting such areas as housing, public health, and transportation.

Lastly, we ask that CMS test the rating system with consumers to make sure that real people understand it and find it useful.

In order to become educated health care consumers, people need access to comprehensive, clear, and valuable information. These steps would go a long way to providing that access. And to create a culture of health, an educated consumer is our best customer.

Tara Oakman

Tara Oakman, PhD, is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focusing on strengthening vulnerable children and families and working to improve the value of national investments in health and health care. Read her full bio