Click Here for Health

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Consumers say that they're willing to pay for the right health-care services online.

Is there a doctor on the site? Although more than 20,000 health Web sites are vying for consumers' attention and wallets, they're falling short of users' expectations. Sure, the ubiquitous reference materials, discussion boards, timely articles, and links to other sites are a good start. But today's health-care consumers expect so much more, according to a recent study by Deloitte Consulting.

To become trusted health-care advisors, consumers say that health sites must offer them more control over their health-care information, more services, and more connectivity. And, in a shocking twist for the New Economy, consumers don't expect all of these extras for free: They're even willing to change health plans or pay for the right services.

All of which means that the market potential is huge. According to Deloitte, a third of adults online are so-called e-health consumers, who frequent health Web sites. By 2003 that figure will double: to 68 million of the projected 102 million U.S. adults online, according to market researcher Cyber Dialogue.

On average, these consumers are about 37 years old, and almost 41 percent of them have at least some college education. They're technologically savvy and concerned about their health. Further, more than 17 percent are Baby Boomers who are also responsible for the care of elders as well as children. That makes them an influential bunch that's engaged, empowered, and ready for a more proactive role in their own health care, as well as the health of their dependents.

And these consumers have high expectations. As banks, credit card companies, and even long distance telephone carriers expand their online services, patrons expect the same from e-health sites. Nearly three-quarters say they want online communication with their doctor as well as increased information on disease, and treatment options. They're also looking for report cards on physicians and hospitals.

Those services are so important to them that they're willing to pay for them - albeit a modest amount. Many said they'd pay $5 to get such services, while a much smaller percentage said they'd be willing to pay $20. More than a third said they would pay to manage benefits online, and a quarter would actually switch plans to get this ability. About a quarter would be willing to pay for online interaction with a doctor, and 20 percent would be willing to switch health plans altogether.

But despite the millions of dollars that dot-coms and drug companies have poured into building and marketing their sites, no one's met any of those expectations - yet. "Health-care providers are going to have to become more focused on consumers and their needs, which is far from where things stand today," says Graham Pallett, partner at Deloitte Consulting, and one of the authors of the study.

That's an opportunity as well as a problem, emphasizes Pallett. The ultimate winners, he figures, will be the incumbent health-care organizations such as hospital groups or doctors. By meeting users' needs online, they can regain their position as the most logical, trusted, and preferred source of health-care information and services. "The consumer movement is real and incumbents have been slow to act, but health system hospitals are best positioned to win here," says Pallett. "Incumbents just need to get off their duffs."

Yet there's one thing standing in the way of meeting consumers' e-health needs: the doctors themselves. You can bring doctors to the Net, but you can't force them to use it, as e-health players are discovering.

Earlier this year, a study by the American Medical Association found that only 40 percent of doctors are wired to the Net, not because of technical issues, but because they view it as less than valuable to their needs. And in March, a study by Forrester Research senior analyst Michael Barrett entitled "Why Doctors Hate the Net" found that most doctors resist using the Internet because they see it as a hindrance rather than a help. According to Barrett, most doctors see e-mail communication with patients as more work, taking more time from an already busy day. Some also worry that they will not be reimbursed for work done over the Net.

In fact, 72 percent of the health-care professionals Forrester surveyed said physicians will not personally respond to patient e-mail in the future; and another 19 percent said doctors would do so only if they are compensated for such exchanges.

Pallett and his colleagues acknowledge doctor resistance as the greatest barrier to their recommendations. The issue is so large, in fact, that they intend to launch a full-scale research effort to understand the problem. But the market itself may correct the problem.

"When the consumer becomes more engaged and empowered, it will lead to significant upheaval in the health-care industry," Pallett stresses.

For more information on this study, visit Deloitte Consulting's Web site at www.dc.com/research.

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