As mentioned in my last blog, consumers are clear on which services they’d like to receive virtually. In this blog, I explore the issue of consumer trust, its drivers and its impact on virtual health adoption, which I discussed with industry experts at the 2021 CES conference.

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First, it’s important to realize that trust is indispensable in a tech-enabled ecosystem where power is shifting into consumer hands. A lack of trust could make consumers reluctant to engage with digital health, despite its benefits. They want to know what’s happening to their personal health information (PHI), and that it won’t be used against them.

Sure—COVID-19 boosted virtual care adoption. People had no other choice, for safety reasons. But Accenture research shows that consumer trust in good faith personal health information usage remains limited, with just one in five consumers in our study saying they are “very confident” that their data is used responsibly and in their best interest (see Figure). The healthcare industry risks stalling voluntary virtual care service adoption in post-pandemic times.

Source: Accenture 2020 Digital Health Survey

Using data in consumers’ best interests

Many organizations are implementing innovative care models using patient data. But there’s a difference between what’s possible and what’s permissible to consumers. The healthcare industry, especially new entrants to the market, needs to sit up and listen. Service convenience and efficiency aren’t enough. Informing, obtaining consent and handling consumer data responsibly and (possibly even more importantly) in their best interests is indispensable to gaining trust and unlocking virtual health’s full potential in terms of health outcomes, revenue streams and operational efficiency.

Tackle the trust erosion

We must earn health consumer trust in two ways: trust in PHI security, and trust in organizational respect for consumer rights. Consumers want and need control over use of their personal data. They aren’t asking: “Will you keep it safe?” as much as they’re asking: “Will you use it in ways I approve of?” While some goodwill is there, recent experiences decreased trust levels: Accenture research in 2017 indicated that a significant majority of consumers (88 percent) trusted their physicians or other healthcare providers to keep digital healthcare data secure, and 57 percent trusted technology companies to do so. However, in 2020 our latest study showed that trust is eroding for all stakeholders including providers (83 percent trusted their physicians, 45 percent trusted technology companies).

Consumer suspicion that PHI could be sold to third parties or used for commercial reasons at their expense must be addressed. Mediocre trust levels have serious implications for the great work being done by many providers and payers to create and enable new modes of virtual care. Even if they execute perfectly, their plans won’t work without trust.

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Demonstrating good faith data usage

Traditional healthcare models were built around healthcare provider needs—but consumers no longer necessarily accept that. Greater consumer insight, care and data ownership autonomy means payers and providers must provide care on consumers’ terms, especially if they expect to leverage personal data. This applies whether they’re improving profitability, research and even when they’re improving care.

Consumers have been trying to tell us what they want for some time. Another study[1] found that patients’ major focus when giving consent is on the purpose for which their information is used. The findings emphasize that payers and providers must focus on communicating intended use of data to ensure:

  • Consumers are okay with choosing a trade-off like data for improved care or greater service efficiency—or if their services are discounted by selling PHI to third parties.
  • They’re okay if it’s used for research based on their consent.
  • They’re not okay with finding out later, nor do they like their PHI being used for marketing—even if they consented to it when accepting the fine print of standard terms and conditions.
Leveraging trust as a competitive differentiator

Privacy and security are important building blocks, but consumer adoption requires confidence in permission-based data application and real value delivered—to their own health outcomes, for example. Consumers want flexibility to opt in—and opt out later if they change their minds.

What is consumer health data worth? It varies from person to person. At one end of the scale, PHI to be used for a consumer’s own medical care might be shared freely, while at the other, PHI that enables targeted advertising has significant monetary value and could be sold or traded for pricing discounts. In-between there’s PHI that benefits others and could be used to develop more effective therapies but must still be secured.

Wherever it falls on the scale, it’s clear that none of these applications (from marketing to improved personal care) can happen unless patients give their informed consent based on trust. As society and healthcare become increasingly digital, data protection regulations become stricter and, more importantly, consumers become more conscious of risk and vote with their feet. Consent isn’t given in the absence of trust. Based on what we learned at CES, it’s time for healthcare organizations to earn it and, if well managed, trust can be used as a product asset and point of competitive differentiation.

[1] Grande et al, (2014). The Importance of Purpose: Moving Beyond Consent in the Societal Use of Personal Health Information, Annals of Internal Medicine.

Kaveh Safavi

Senior Managing Director – Consulting, Global Health

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