Will doctor consultations follow the newspaper industry model?
As a young boy, I remember going to the doctor with my parents. At that time, GPs were still common and were usually supported by a “compounder” who would provide medicines in a “pudhiya”, a roll of paper that contained the medicines that the doctor had prescribed. Since then, most doctors have handed over the process of medicine delivery to licensed pharmacists, choosing to focus on dispensing their expertise on what goes on the prescription pad. Is that model beginning to change now?
There was a time when the newspaper industry used to sell news. Customers would pay to consume news. Then, a few decades back, the newspaper industry realized that the real product they were selling was not news, but advertising access to customers. The price of the newspaper was hardly enough to pay for the business, so advertising became the prime revenue model for the newspaper industry. The customer, who used to be the reader, became the product, to whom the industry started selling ads. The news became incidental and no surprises, the quality of what passes off as news has deteriorated rapidly.
I was reminded of the newspaper industry disruption recently by ads that are targeting me from dozens of healthcare startups. Many of them are selling me medicines and diagnostics and throwing in doctor consultations, in some cases free and in other cases, heavily subsidized and unlimited! I always thought that medicines and diagnostics tests are the tools for doctor to treat patients. Now, the tools are being positioned as the lead product, with doctor consultations being thrown in as an adjunct. The message is “we’ll give you the best priced tools” and by the way, we’ll throw in some doctor consultations as the commodity. This is a fascinating shift in positioning and an unintended consequence of the increasing “consumerization” of healthcare. I am still thinking through what I make of this change.
I find the commoditized positioning of doctor consultations uncomfortable. If we don’t accord expertise to the experts, we may not receive expertise back from them. However, in a country with poor access to health workers for most citizens, this idea could lower the barrier for patients to access some sort of health expertise. There are smart companies that have automated pathways to provide standardized clinical advice that might serve the needs of many common health ailments. Maybe if we invest in such pathways, these “commoditized” doctor consultations might be part of the health access solution at scale.
But I am also left wondering about all that could go wrong. As has happened with news, we could succeed in reaching many more people by lowering the barrier for doctor consultations. But we might end up trading off increased access for a lower quality of the primary product, the doctor’s best and unbiased advice. The lessons from the newspaper industry are telling and we should avoid the mistakes they made. The difference in healthcare, could literally be a matter of life and death.