February 25, 2013 Back to All Blogs

What TurboTax and online dating web sites can teach health care

findmydateWhat can online dating web sites teach health care? Plenty if we’re serious about putting information about health care performance to work for patients.

Imagine giving patients the ability to find their physician or surgicenter “match” based on factors they choose, like a specific health condition, location and performance ratings. Just as online dating success relies on users being specific about what they want, health information becomes exponentially more useful when it is highly personalized and relevant.

But right now the public has to work way too hard to piece together relevant information about their health and where to receive care.

The Center of Gravity is You

Instead of having to forage multiple online sources of health information, what if the center of gravity was the user?

GigaOm recently reviewed forward-edge online search tools in development that create “information gravitation” that surfaces relevant content based on the words you type, the people and organizations you follow and activities you’re involved.

An app called BiteScore shifts the center of gravity to the user by bringing information about health code violations to users when and where they need it. For example, if you make a dinner reservation using OpenTable or go to Zagat to read a restaurant review, a small bug shows up on your screen with the restaurant’s most recent health ratings.

Imagine these options in a health care setting where a pregnant woman looking for a doctor for her first prenatal visit could be presented with information about each ObGyn’s rate of Caesareans (considered to be more costly and risky for mother and child than vaginal deliveries), reviews from mothers about birthing facilities and some advice about selecting a pediatrician.

An Opportunity to Act

In a TedMed talk WIRED magazine executive editor Thomas Guetz claimed that better health is not a science problem, but an information problem. Guetz suggested that we shouldn’t be just providing health information, but presenting people with “an opportunity to act” through the design and even the colors used to deliver health care information.

In Colorado, the designers of the state’s “Health Information Exchange” – a marketplace of insurance coverage options available under the new health care law, asked consumers what kind of online design they prefer in shopping for health insurance plans. Healthcare leaders assumed consumers would choose a Travelocity-esque platform with lots of options and price comparisons. Instead people chose TurboTax.

Like paying taxes, buying insurance is a complicated proposition with high stakes. Confusing medical terms worry users, who want to be able to hover a mouse over unknown words to get a quick explanation – a popular feature of the tax software.

“At-your-service” navigation tools that sweep in with suggestions and definitions empower users with answers to their questions and prompts for making decisions. Of course unlike paying taxes once a year, tending to health care – your own and those you love — is an ongoing job: a job it pays to stay on top of.

Feedback Loops Raise All Boats

The growth in sensors and the quantified-self movement make vigilance and timely responses to health care needs easier than ever. Information via sensors created by and for the user carry an emotional connection, because it comes directly from your body. This personalization and relevance places the data squarely in Guetz’s “opportunity to act” category. Whether it’s charting calories burned, steps taken, miles run, heart rate, blood sugar or quality of sleep – the data is infinitely more interesting, because it’s about you and is presented in a convenient, user-friendly display.

Instead of being overwhelmed or intimidated by an overload of health information, it actually creates a hunger for more and better information. Nearly 50 percent of personal health data “trackers” identified in the recent Pew Internet Research survey say tracking has changed their overall approach to maintaining their health; 48 percent of trackers now ask their doctors new questions.

Those of us who believe in the light and heat of public reporting of health care performance and quality information have a great opportunity to capitalize on this interest in health data by shifting the center of gravity to the user and creating more “opportunities to act” to improve health.  We can connect the personalized needs identified in health data to the performance of healthcare providers and factors each consumer considers important.

The Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) challenged designers across the country to reimagine the patient health record and the winners offer innovative examples of graphically pleasing, easy-to-navigate data. The next evolution for designers should be creating a conduit for patients to access performance and ratings information that helps in choosing affordable, high-performing doctors, clinics and hospitals. This kind of two-way feedback loop would provide a strong incentive for patients and providers to continue to do their best.

Instead of a “field of dreams” approach that expects users to seek and parse information, we can use technology to deliver the right health information to the right person at the right time. It’s a wholly different way of thinking about and designing public healthcare reports, but it’s the direction the online world is moving, because users are demanding it.

* Also check out:
What do we know about health care public reporting? Not enough.
Health care data’s tipping point
Five trends that show the digital health revolution’s potential to improve quality and cost
Red carpet premieres and animated reviews for health care public reporting

Mark Tobias (@PanthTech) is president of Pantheon, which combines technology expertise and a deep knowledge of health care, education, and social impact markets to provide online technology solutions for nonprofits, associations, and government.