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Taran March @ Quality Digest

Customer Care

Last Chance to Win

Why is my health insurer acting like a bookie?

Published: Tuesday, October 20, 2015 - 11:47

As a sort of character-building exercise, I recently opened an unsolicited email from my health insurance provider. I was intent on doing a quick purge of sham, spam, and flimflam, and I figured this one would be no different. But I also know I’m biased against health insurers, so I decided to set my assumptions aside and read it.

“Last Chance to Win!” it announced. This was the first I’d heard of any chances or wins, but I let that pass. In the perpetual street brawl of public relations, appealing to desperation and greed is a fairly standard tactic, although perhaps not the most appropriate for an insurance company.

The email opened to side-by-side branding of my health insurer and an online doctor group. Except for the two logos cozying up, my insurance provider was conspicuously absent in the rest of the message. No partnership back-slapping, not even an endorsement. Almost as if (surely not) my name and contact information had been given to this other outfit.

However, I was trying not to make assumptions, so I pressed on. I was reminded not to “give up my chance to win $500,” and in smaller print reassured that I could indeed win an Amazon gift card for that amount. Apparently I’d have to buy something, not use the money to pay rent—or doctor bills, for that matter.

The rest followed as neatly as a mathematical theorem: quick and easy… save time and money… flu season… sign up sign up sign up.

If whoever sent the email (my insurance company? Dr. Strangelove?) had been paying attention to marketing trends, they would have tried harder to establish a two-way relationship, to have a “conversation” and create “engagement.” I wish they had because I could have told them what a momentous thing I was about to do: click on the sign-up button. Instead, cursor poised, it felt more like pushing past a beery barker and entering the tent of a snake oil salesman.

Nevertheless, I clicked—or entered, as you prefer.

Once inside, I was encouraged to “See a Doctor Now,” presumably someone like the white-coated, stethoscope-sporting George Clooney lookalike, grinning a little wolfishly from a tablet screen. All I had to do was type in my name, email address, and password, then click on the box agreeing to the terms of use.

I clicked to read them, and it was a good thing I wasn’t actually sick. The 15 pages of terms, conditions, warranties, and disclaimers lurched on like a nightmare caused by indigestion, but they boiled down to the following facts:
• The company—actually two companies, a tech platform that supports the online doctors, and another tech platform that supports the first in some mysterious way—have no affiliation with my health insurer.
• Neither of the tech companies is licensed to practice medicine, and they aren’t liable for any advice the doctors provide.
• In fact, they’re not liable for anything, which they strongly emphasize in capital letters: “...SHALL NOT BE LIABLE TO YOU UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES FOR ANY DAMAGES OR PENALTIES...”
• If you’re dying, you need to call 911. They won’t do it for you.

Now for a few conditions and warranties of my own. I think telemedicine is a good thing with a range of potential benefits. What parent wouldn’t jump at the chance to consult a doctor without leaving a feverish child’s bedside and avoid the midnight trip to a surreal waiting room blasted by fluorescent lights?

Further poking around on the doctors-without-offices site brought me to a lineup of the physicians themselves. None of them looked like George Clooney, but all were MDs with at least 15 years of practice. If I were to meet any one of them in a walk-in clinic, I’d have no problem rolling up my sleeve for the blood pressure cuff. (How is that accomplished through a computer, do you suppose?) The online platform delivers a useful service. Even the terms of use were fairly easy to understand, if a little windy. Both the doctors and their tech support deserve to profit from the venture.

No, what bothered me about the experience was how it was marketed. If I’d been in more of a hurry sorting my email, I wouldn’t have given it a second glance. Even in the spirit of no-assumptions research, I found it sloppy, patronizing, and inappropriate. If we’re mature enough to understand terms of use—and by signing up, we allow the legal world to assume we are—we’re also capable of deciding, without persuasion, if an online doctor consult would suit us. Incentives and gimmicks have never played well with medicine, and a $500 lottery sends exactly the wrong message.

I also disliked that the technology appeared to be heading down social media tributaries (everything we want, instantly, because we can) rather than upstream toward true process improvement. Aside from its mobility and convenience, telemedicine could help to address the chronic hospital issue of readmissions. It could help support the return of house calls, which offers lean benefits such as the ones pointed out by physician Sandeep Jauhar in a recent column for the The New York Times.

As a lean tool, telemedicine has yet to reach its full potential, but it has many chances ahead to achieve that. Grabbing at it because a PR firm cranked out a predictable email for a tech platform is a mediocre start for this new resource. Why not make better of use of it so we can all win?


About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is Quality Digest’s editorial director A 35-year veteran of publishing, she has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. When not plotting the course of QD with the team, she can usually be found clicking around the internet in search of news and clues to the human condition.