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Could inflation further change consumers’ health care behaviors?

Consumers are facing economic pressures they weren’t just one year ago. Consider: Prices for food at home rose 12% between June 2021 and June 2022, the largest increase since April 1979. Energy prices rose 42% over the same period, the largest 12-month increase since April 1980.13 As prices increase in other areas of consumers’ lives, one likely outcome is that they’ll have less money to dedicate to their health care needs.

Based on findings from the Deloitte 2022 Pulse Survey of US Consumers, we expect that the pressure of inflation will change consumers’ health care behaviors—and force them to make tough decisions. For example, as of September 2022, 30% of consumers are either “planning” (13%) or “still deciding” (17%) to change their health insurance plans to cut costs for the upcoming 2023 health insurance enrollment. This is likely to increase next year because health care insurance prices have a “lag effect,” so consumers likely won’t feel the impact until the 2024 open enrollment period.14 Here are a few other ways we see consumer behaviors shifting:

Consumers will want a hybrid and human-centered virtual care model. Since the start of the pandemic, consumers have become more comfortable with and accustomed to accessing health care virtually. Even before inflation hit, the consumer uptake of virtual health visits increased from 22% in 2018 to 44% in early 2022, according to the Deloitte Survey of US Health Care Consumers. When we examined the reasons why consumers use virtual health tools, we found that nearly two-thirds of consumers who had a virtual health care visit since September 2021, cited convenience (38%) or cost (27%) as the top reasons why. With virtual visits, consumers often spend less time and money on transportation, parking, and dependent care.

We also found that some consumers would consider changing health plans if they don’t offer virtual visits and other more affordable and convenient options. According to our pulse survey, 26% of consumers with a health plan that doesn’t cover virtual visits plan to change their health plan. To accommodate consumers’ preferences, health plans could offer tools that help consumers calculate the best financial options, connect them with clinicians they want to see, and offer access to virtual visits.

Despite consumers’ interest in virtual health care options, health care organizations still have hurdles to overcome in providing the right services. And aligning their offerings with consumer preferences is a big one. For example, consumers who aren’t satisfied with a virtual visit are less likely to schedule another one. Consumers might pursue another option when they’ve been matched with a virtual provider with a poor “webside manner,” haven’t made a connection with the provider, or are experiencing low quality of care compared with in-person visits.15

It’s important that health care organizations think of other ways to offset the impact of inflation on consumers’ ability to interact with the health system—even beyond the location of doctor visits. Clinical trials, for example, play a vital role in advancing treatments and cures, and if consumers are feeling a pinch in their budgets, they may be less likely to participate. The cost (both from a monetary and time perspective) of traveling to clinical trial sites and taking time off work are well-known barriers for consumers participating in clinical trials. Deloitte’s research on increasing clinical trial diversity, found that offering clinical trials at more convenient sites—virtually and at or near the home—would increase consumers’ willingness to participate by nearly 20 percentage points. As costs remain top of mind for consumers, having opportunities to participate in clinical trials at alternative sites will be important for participant engagement and retention.

With costs on the rise, gaining consumers’ trust in health care is critical

The combination of inflation, a tight labor market, and ongoing supply chain issues is putting financial pressure on hospitals, health systems, and clinicians. To offset these pressures, organizations should work on building trust and maintaining strong relationships with consumers. This is particularly critical as consumers are under pricing pressure themselves, and therefore may be more likely to scrutinize how and where they access care. Right now, consumers will likely care even more about having a good experience, getting high-quality care, and developing a relationship with the clinician based on trust.

With the rise in consumer agency, health care consumers know they have options and are empowered to make decisions that impact their own care. Consider that 63% of consumers are willing to switch doctors if they don’t like the way their doctor communicates. According to our research on trust, about half of the participants in our focus group said they’d be willing to trade in-person visits and the convenience of a closer location for a provider who relates to them and understands their needs. Participants told us they are willing to make tradeoffs if they cannot find a “similar” provider that they can trust in their area. For example, we found that more than half of the participants who identify as Asian (56%) and Black (55%) are willing to travel farther to see a provider who meets their needs. And, at least half of participants who identify as Hispanic (54%) and Black (49%) are willing to use virtual visits, as are 41% of Asians.16

These findings demonstrate that consumers want a trusted health care experience and are willing to move on when they don’t receive it. Thus, trust is a crucial design feature that should be weaved throughout health care offerings. Here are a few avenues for health care organizations to explore:

  • Help consumers navigate their health care journeys. One way health care organizations can accomplish this is by using established and trusted entities to help consumers find information and providers. For example, providing services like digital navigators that connect individuals to health care clinicians or services they need, such as transportation to appointments or access to healthy food. The key is to present the digital navigator as a trusted service/individual who is tied to the consumer’s community, understands their lived experience, and delivers care with empathy.
  • Collaborate with community partners. Health care organizations can consider collaborating with trusted partners in the community, like pharmacies and other community-based organizations.In fact, when we asked consumers what organizations they want their health systems to partner with in their communities, their top responses were community health centers and local pharmacies.
  • Provide (better) cost transparency tools. Design tools that help consumers predict OOP costs and resources, so they’re better prepared to cover the costs of health care and prescription drugs.Being able to explain the cost of a service and the patient’s likely OOP costs will become even more important as inflation continues to squeeze consumers’ pocketbooks.
  • Include social drivers of health in patient discussions. According to the Deloitte fresh food consumer survey 2022, nine out of 10 consumers who recognize price inflation are adopting strategies to reduce how much they spend on food—without sacrificing freshness. Helping consumers get access to healthy food is an area that health care providers can lean in on.

Avoiding an affordability crisis

Between consumers putting off low-cost health care needs due to concerns about inflation and providers nearing a profitability crisis, the topic of health care costs is weighing heavily for many. But it may be just the push the industry needs to align its strategies with Deloitte’s vision for the Future of Health™. Otherwise, health care organizations could find themselves at risk of a massive affordability crisis.

The pandemic clearly accelerated the industry’s adoption of virtual tools and services, but it also reminded many of the importance of personal and clinical relationships. Our research reinforces the potential power of a hybrid model of care, one in which virtual and affordable options are integrated seamlessly alongside existing workflows and in-person patient encounters. In this model, clinicians, peers, and family members can help consumers navigate care both in person and virtually. And we could harness the power of trust to yield cost-effective, convenient options that might offset cost pressures in a year when affordability and inflation are on everyone’s minds.

  1. Leslie Read, Leslie Korenda, and Heather Nelson, Trust in the health care system, Deloitte Insights, August 5, 2021.

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