Christine Stuart photo

A well-known national pollster says the medical profession will soon face a struggle similar to that of today’s newspaper industry, which has been badly disrupted by the arrival of the Internet.

The pollster, Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports, told the Connecticut Health Council on Friday at the Hartford Marriott that technology is changing how consumers think about the delivery of healthcare in a similar way to how they began to consume the news through the web.

Today, he said, two out of three Americans recognize that lifestyle changes like quitting smoking or monitoring their blood sugar will have a bigger impact on their health than the care they receive from medical professionals.

“I expect that everyone in this room five years from now is going to be pricking their finger, putting a little blood on something, and tapping into an iPhone app and sending it to a medical facility,” Rasmussen said. “It is going to change the relationship between doctors and patients.”

He said technology will change payment systems, the cost of testing, and the number of doctors needed to see patients.

“Twenty years ago, if I had gone to a group of newspaper publishers and told them what the Internet was going to do to their business, they would have laughed at me,” Rasmussen said. “In fact, I know they would have because they did.”

He said he told newspaper publishers that he wanted to give them free polling data and that all they had to do was link back to his website.

“And I was told newspapers are the only source of trusted local information,” Rasmussen said. “People will never go anywhere else on the Internet for information and they would never put a link to another site.”

Obviously, it didn’t work out that way.

“It’s easy for you in this room to laugh at newspapers 20 years ago because you know what happened, Rasmussen said. “But that same thing is going to happen to the healthcare industry.”

He said if people start using their phones to transmit health information to their doctors, then the need for some medical professionals will disappear.

“One estimate says we will need 80 percent fewer doctors a decade from now than we do today,” Rasmussen said. “Maybe this change is revolutionary. It is frightening. It is something your industry is going to have to figure out how to address.”

Those changes are not something that will be determined by political leaders or public opinion polls, Rasmussen said, adding that it will be up to the industry to decide how it will handle those changes.

Christine Stuart photo

He reiterated that the general trend and demand is to give people more control over their own circumstances. But admittedly that’s not what the healthcare industry is focused on at the moment.

“You’re worried about talking about trying to understand the implications of all the healthcare exchanges being set up, or not set up, and how that’s going to play out,” Rasmussen said. “And only one in three Americans knows if their state has agreed to set up an exchange. It is a non-event for most people. Public opinion hasn’t changed on the issue in a few years mainly because people have a political opinion on it rather than a real-world-experience position on it.”

He said that if people want to know where the industry is headed and where it’s going, Washington is the last place they should look. He said it’s more important to look where public opinion is headed.

Rasmussen admitted that he is biased in favor of public opinion because he is a pollster, but he said he believes public opinion drives all change in the U.S.

Case in point: the Civil Rights movement.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and was arrested. She is credited with starting the Civil Rights movement.

“With all due respect to her, she didn’t start that movement. She was just a catalyst,” Rasmussen said. “She took an action that brought a movement to light. Martin Luther King came in and gave voice to it, but it was public opinion that made that change possible.”

The reason Rasmussen said he knows that is because in 1943, some 12 years before the famous event in Montgomery, Rosa Parks did the “exact same thing, on the exact same bus line. She even thinks it was the exact same driver. And nothing happened.”

In 1943, Rasmussen said, public opinion was not ready for the Civil Rights movement.

But it won’t only be public opinion that shapes how the healthcare reform act is implemented, Rasmussen said. He said people’s interpretation of the law will matter as much as Ted Benna’s interpretation of the 401k.

The 401k was created in 1978 as part of that year’s Tax Revenue Act, but went largely unnoticed for two years until Benna, a Pennsylvania benefits consultant, devised a creative and rewarding application of the law. Now there are more than 50 million 401k plans, Rasmussen said.

“It’s not because of a law that was passed. It’s because of a way a benefits consultant looked at that law,” Rasmussen said.

As people explore the 2,700-page healthcare reform law, Rasmussen expects regulators and political leaders will make changes to the specifics, and “every time they do that your industry is going to have to adapt.”

Right now, when it comes to public opinion on the healthcare reform law, 39 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of it, 35 percent have an unfavorable opinion. He said those numbers haven’t changed outside the margin of error since September 2009.

Democrats like it, Republicans hate it, and unaffiliated voters don’t like it very much.

“These numbers are coming because people have a political perspective on it,” Rasmussen said. “Most people believe it’s going to raise the cost of healthcare, raise the federal budget deficit, and at the same time hurt the quality of care.”

What voters are saying is they want more choice, more control over their healthcare dollars, Rasmussen said.