04/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Treating The Patient-Doctor Disconnect

In the past year, the health care debate has been all about treating illness and how to pay for it. Missing from the conversation is a simply powerful idea: living healthy everyday.

Certainly there's room in the conversation to explore how we can make living healthy as routine as commuting to work or changing our socks. Why isn't this approach to health part of the treatment plan?

To find out, we decided to take the temperature of what people think and do about their health. As part of GE's healthymagination program, we partnered with Cleveland Clinic and Ochsner Health Systems to ask more than 2,000 Americans about their healthy living attitudes, behaviors and barriers, and their relationships with their doctors. We also asked more than 1,200 experts who know Americans' health best--doctors and other healthcare professionals--to weigh in.

We were surprised to find that Americans are engaged in some pretty magical thinking about their health.

First, the patient-doctor relationship needs work. Physicians not only help cure our illnesses -- they also help prevent them. But they can't do the latter if people don't seek their help, and in the right way.

In our study, 70 percent of respondents said they have taken actions to avoid going to the doctor, including walking around in pain or asking friends for medical advice. And when Americans do go for a checkup, 77 percent of health care professionals say at least one-fourth of their patients omit facts or downright lie to them about their personal health.

Second, we found that Americans just aren't walking the talk about their everyday health.

Promisingly, 71 percent of respondents said they have a plan for living healthy, and nine of 10 said eating healthy and exercising are part of their healthy living plan. And one-third gave themselves an "A" grade on specific daily health activities, like exercise, eating healthy, and managing stress. So far so good.

But here's the catch: more than 90 percent of doctors gave Americans a grade of "C" or lower on these same activities across the board. Further, less than half of Americans know their current cholesterol levels, only one-third know their daily caloric intake, and just 29 percent know their blood sugar level. More know how many vacation days they have left (47 percent) than they do the number of calories they ate yesterday (43 percent).

It's encouraging that so many Americans seem to get how important healthy living is. But the gap between what patients believe and do, and what doctors know to be true, shows that confusion reigns. Clearly, there's an unanswered need, and a big opportunity, to begin using imagination, communication, and technology to help people make the shift from "fix-it" to prevention.

So how do we start?

At GE, we decided we could take some small first steps to help people get more from their doctor visits. We developed an easy-to-use online check-up with WebMD, called The Better Health Conversation, which walks users through questions to ask their doctor about what ails them, and points to information they should have before they get to the doctor's office.

The idea is to learn how to consider your health more carefully before you arrive at an appointment--and to shoot for a more collaborative, more honest relationship with your doctor.

Technology has greatly advanced the treatment of illness. Now let's put it to work for prevention with simpler, smaller, more cost-effective innovations like portable medical devices, home health monitoring, and health IT that lets doctors share patient information with each other. These are the kinds of user-friendly solutions we're working on at GE to improve the quality of health care, making it less costly and available to more people.

It's time to begin seeing our health not as an overwhelming hurdle, but as a series of daily achievable steps. It's time to put resources behind practical approaches and tools that people will actually use. Together, we can make better health contagious.

Beth Comstock is Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer at GE.

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