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Patient vs. healthcare consumer? Musings on the CVS/Aetna merger

During an interview on the PBS News Hour, CVS CEO Larry Merlo drew an interesting distinction when speaking about the future of healthcare. Fresh from the merger with Aetna, Merlo said people directly in the care of a physician or in a hospital setting were “patients” while everyone else is simply a healthcare consumer.

That’s an interesting perspective, particularly coming from the CEO of an enormous chain of pharmacies that has increasingly moved to attract not just consumers but patients to its Minute Clinics. And it makes me wonder why it matters to spell out the difference.

At the end of the day we’re all patients, and we’re all consumers, right? But perhaps the emphasis on consumers underscores the changing expectations we all have when it comes to healthcare.  Consumer technology has made us powerful in every single part of our lives, except for healthcare. Consumers, by their very definition, have status and ownership and the ability to vote with their feet by choosing where and how to spend. Patients, on the other hand, can be (and often are) powerless – no choices, no votes, and certainly no ownership.

Can your local CVS change all that, particularly now that it’s tied directly in to an enormous insurance network? Will the vast reams of (hopefully anonymous) data suddenly available to CVS/Aetna effect true change for a healthcare consumer?

FitBit, and a number of other companies, are working on wellness coaching programs that include wearables data, family/friend input and perhaps eventually patient records. But in a data-driven community pharmacy, the tech who rings up the prescription knows the healthcare consumer not only has high blood pressure but missed a recent checkup, hasn’t acted on a referral to a cardiologist and has let a company-reimbursed gym membership lapse.

Setting privacy concerns aside for a moment, a simple intervention during a transaction at the local pharmacy could help put this healthcare consumer back on the right track – all without ever going in to “patient” mode. And maybe that is the true message Merlo was sending: in today’s ponderous and slow to change healthcare world, it’s better to be a consumer than a patient. Time will tell if he’s right.

*In the interest of full disclosure, CVS is the pharmacy I use.

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