Study: Demand High for Managing Health Plans Online

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Consumers are willing to pay, and even switch their health plans, to access their health benefits online, but few are willing to spend money on health content, a study by consultant Deloitte Research has found.

The survey of 1,073 U.S. adults with access to the Internet found that 34 percent would pay $5 more a month for health benefits if they could manage those benefits online. But only about 10 percent said they would pay $5 more to access information such as "report card" assessments of physicians and hospitals.

Twenty-five percent said they would take the radical step of switching health plans to manage benefits online. Less than 10 percent would do so for informational services.

Consumers expect to get basic information from health organizations at no charge or at a minimal cost, the study said. As a result, the survey concluded that business strategies based strictly on content likely won't be enough.

"Basic information is just a welcome mat; the ante to play in the game," the study said.

Consumers are more aware than ever of the clout they wield with healthcare providers, and they expect value-added services, which opens opportunities to companies who are creative new e-health services for consumers.

No one has yet found the perfect recipe for delivering the services e-health consumers want most, the study said. More than half of those surveyed browse portal categories and do keyword searches to find what they need, rather than go to a specific Web site.

"This runs counter to conventional wisdom -- the assumption that doctors and hospitals would emerge as the preferred sources of information and services for e-health consumers," the study said.

Despite the wide-open playing field of the e-health market, significant challenges remain, including keeping consumers satisfied and getting over their fears about online privacy. While 71 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to use physician report cards, only 32 percent of those who had used report cards now available said they were "extremely" or "very" satisfied.

Three-quarters of the respondents said they worried that an online health provider might share their personal information with a third party. Nearly 60 percent said they feared hackers would gain access to their personal data.

"Consumers apparently don't trust anyone -- or any existing technology -- to ensure the privacy of their health information," the study said.

Although companies have spent millions of dollars on advertising and technology for their e-health business strategies, none have been able to deliver the services consumers want or need. The study concluded that "most e-health providers continue to struggle to define a sustainable value proposition."

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