Improving Quality Health Care

There is an emerging consensus in the health policy community that informed and engaged consumers have a vital role to play in improving the quality of care that the U.S. health system delivers to patients.

The expectation is that when consumers are armed with the right information, they will demand high-quality services from their providers, choose treatment options wisely, and become active participants and self-managers of their own health and health care. Yet the choices before consumers when they attempt to navigate the health system can be dizzying—from how to select health plans and providers to the pros and cons of alternative treatment options. In fact, the choices are becoming increasingly complex along with the health care system itself. The pressing question for the policy community is: How can we ensure that consumers have the tools and information they need to play the active role we are asking of them?

A growing body of research is beginning to provide answers to that question, but there are also substantial gaps in the research. This report attempts to identify the most important of those gaps. It is the product of a colloquium sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) at which a select group of health policy experts presented five white papers on different aspects of the consumer engagement issue.

Working discussions at the meeting produced a series of recommendations for facilitating consumer engagement and a roadmap for future research. Both are outlined here.

This overview report illustrates both the complexity of the many ways that consumers interact with the health care system and the varying opportunities for engagement. Consequently, there are unlikely to be simple policy solutions to enhancing consumer engagement. But as the white papers and the discussions at the colloquium attest, two things are clear: First, consumer engagement holds great potential to spur health quality improvements. Second, it must not be viewed as a silver bullet, since consumers have neither the power nor the skills to transform health care systems on their own. Change will require a joint effort on the part of consumers, providers, payers, insurers and policy-makers.