What’s the consumer voice on health tech?

How do health insurance customers feel about new technology and what matters to them? 

Understanding the attitudes and perceptions of our customers and how they feel about healthcare is not only fundamental to the way we operate, but the way we plan our services, writes Bupa’s Dr Robin Clark.

The impact of genomics, digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI) on healthcare – and in particular cancer care – were explored in recent issues of Independent Practitioner Today by  my colleague Dr Tim Woodman, medical director of policy and cancer services at Bupa. 

Trying to understand customers’ attitudes towards things that do not yet exist may seem like a bit of a shot in the dark.

But we have been able to infer future attitudes based on what is currently available – and by providing descriptions of possible future solutions.

Following a comprehensive literature review, we worked with market research company Ipsos who carried out a survey of 300 participants in the UK, Australia and Spain to gain further insight.

What we found can be broken down into five key themes.

1Personalisation

Consumer attitudes generally vary across and within generations and other population segmentations, highlighting the need to deliver products and services that are personalised to these groups’ needs. 

Opinion on how care is delivered, where and by whom, varies. People are generally open to using technology to support their health and well-being. 

But there are differences and variations when respondents are asked about specific uses of healthcare technology. 

Average opinion suggests respondents were generally open about the use of technology to support their health and well-being. 

However, there appeared to be strongest openness for the 35-44 age group followed by the 25-34 and 45-54 age groups in what seemed to be a U-shaped relationship between openness to using health tech and age.

The strongest sentiments were in the middle age groups and weakest in the youngest and oldest. One potential explanation is that the middle-age groups may prioritise time and convenience more highly – due to work or childcare commitments, for example – and so may be more open to using health technology.

Presence or absence of one or more chronic conditions is also a factor to consider. 

There are also some differences in expressed preferences by gender, which highlights the importance of consumer segmentation when designing or running healthcare services and interventions.

2Excitement

People’s excitement for future-facing developments varies and they seem to be most excited about AI and least excited about the metaverse. 

The rankings are fairly consistent across demographic and user groups such as country, age, gender, medical conditions, private healthcare cover status and tech products usage. 

There is greater excitement for genetic testing in those who identify as female, which could be due to awareness of risk-associated variants linked to some high-incidence cancers among females. 

Over-65s may be more likely to have already had a genetic test as part of existing tests or treatments associated with their care. Therefore, their higher ranking could reflect their existing familiarity.

When people were asked why AI excites them most, the key themes in their responses related to it outperforming humans, offering improved access and speed, helping to tackle resource issues and predicting poor health and disease. 

In general, customers trust products and services that rely on AI as much as, or more than, those that rely on people. And in healthcare, there is a positive perception of AI due to availability, ease and potential to improve efficiency and lower costs of healthcare services. 

Concerns about AI

Concerns, however, included lack of trust (data privacy), safety, digital maturity and the idea of full automation. Factors impacting the acceptability of AI within healthcare include: age, IT skills, preference for talking to computers, perceived utility, positive attitude and perceived trustworthiness.

The metaverse was consistently ranked lowest as an exciting topic, although respondents who said they were very knowledgeable on this topic ranked it fourth out of the seven topics rather than last. 

The other six were: AI; genetic testing; robotics; telehealth and remote care; wearable and other connected devices; big data.

Respondents who reported higher understanding of the metaverse were the most likely to enter a fully immersive virtual environment to meet healthcare professionals. 

While this finding is unsur­prising, it does add to the content validity of the data collected. It can highlight the importance of education when it comes to the adoption of new health technologies, but could also be an example of selection bias.

Virtual reality

The use of virtual reality (VR) in healthcare is being explored for things like pain management and patient education and involvement. And in the future, VR may be used to engage and deliver therapeutic interventions. Beyond VR is healthcare delivered in the metaverse. 

In the future, consumers may be able to consult with healthcare professionals in the metaverse and receive ‘hands-on’ care owing to developments within haptic touch. 

Appetite for the metaverse within healthcare is mixed and there is not yet a comprehensive understanding around consumers’ willingness and sentiment towards receiving care or interacting with the metaverse for their health and care needs. 

3Empowering customers

Consumers want to know more about their health risks and intend to take preventive action. 

There appears to be good appetite to understand health risk, but preferences are likely to be highly personal and specific to the individual. They will also depend on the nature of the health risk being disclosed. 

People see value and are interested in tools and technologies, such as genetic tests, which support the prediction of disease and understanding of health risk. 

Respondents overwhelmingly indicated that they would take positive and constructive action after finding they were at increased risk of developing a health condition. 

This supports the value and need for healthcare organisations to continue investing in the prediction of diseases and ill health.

Evidence shows that:

  • 73.8% of people are happy to receive information about their risk for diseases with available medical treatment – for example, some types of cancer;
  • 72.6% are happy to receive information about their risk of diseases for which only preventive action can be undertaken – for example, heart disease; 
  • 69.6% are happy to receive information about the effects of lifestyle – for example, smoking and weight – on their risk of a medical condition.

As treatments and interventions to prevent disease and improve longevity advance, there will likely be increased appetite from consumers to know their health risk so they can act to keep themselves well and in good health, for longer.

4Chronic care management

There is a growing need and opportunity to support customers with chronic condition management through the use of innovative technological solutions, encouraging self-care and a preventive approach. 

Healthcare consumers with chronic conditions favour convenience – and individuals with a reported mental health condition seem to be more in favour of innovative technological solutions. 

This includes using digital tools to support their mental health, and other innovative solutions to help detect and alert users to a decline in mental health status, such as smart speakers and software that can detect changes in mental health through voice and typing patterns on a laptop, tablet or phone.

In general, people with chronic disease experience a significant improvement in their quality of life and ability to self-care after receiving nurse-led tele-rehabilitation, when compared to a conventional in-person rehabilitation service. However, preferences vary greatly and depend on a range of different factors.

Current limitations of telehealth offerings like tele-rehabilitation include technical issues, limitations on carrying out procedures that require physical contact, and security breaches should not be overlooked. 

Evidence also shows that patients with greater physical disabilities resulting from chronic conditions such as cardiac diseases, chronic respiratory diseases and stroke are less likely to comply with a tele-rehabilitation programme than their counterparts experiencing less functional disability from conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer.

Unsurprisingly, our research found that speed, access to quality care and convenience were ranked as the highest motivators for using telehealth.

5Sharing health data

In our research, consumers ranked their doctor or other healthcare professional, hospital and health insurer as the top three that they would share their health data with and they are viewed as trusted. 

Trust and transparency around data and how it is used are important drivers of data-sharing and should be incorporated into a healthcare organisation’s brand.

According to our research, the top three things that an organisation can do to increase customer willingness to share their health data are:

  • Demonstrating how the organisation keeps data secure and evidencing this; 
  • Being transparent and upfront with how data is accessed and used; 
  • Helping consumers understand how sharing health data benefits their health.

However, trust is just one component of a good relationship between consumers and providers. 

Consumers were also found to put emphasis and value on personal touch when asked about their thoughts towards certain developments such as robotics within healthcare. For example: ‘The personal touch can’t be replaced.’

Conclusion

Digital tools and technologies will support the future of healthcare. However, healthcare professionals and organisations must ensure that the quality and nature of relationships between consumers and providers is strengthened by their use, and not weakened. 

Consumers must be brought along on the journey to make sure that these tools and technologies are a success. 

If they have insufficient knowledge or understanding of the tools, or the tools are not appropriately integrated into current healthcare systems and processes, this presents a risk to their adoption.

Dr Robin Clark (right) is medical director for Bupa Global and UK Insurance