Healthcare Game-Changers or More of the Same?
By Jeff Margolis
As a healthcare veteran, it was invigorating to read the announcement that Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan are partnering to improve healthcare effectiveness and value for their combined 1.2 million employees. In doing so, they have meaningfully re-awakened a mammoth industry and returned the challenges of the existing U.S. “sickcare” system to the front page.
The entry of this powerhouse employer trio highlights the promise of a fundamentally new type of systematic healthcare approach. One that applies sound digital technology and business competencies to holistically support healthcare consumers, rather than just focusing on the reactive delivery of healthcare services. In an orchestrated effort to improve the overall health status and well-being of employees that also results in lower costs – these organizations will have an opportunity to take a true consumer-first approach, which has largely been lacking within the framework of the existing healthcare system. To truly bend, and even reverse, trend for the burgeoning $3.2 trillion healthcare spend that burdens this country, we need a system that requires and empowers healthcare consumers – that is every American citizen – to become active participants in their own health and be connected to the economics associated with it.
Both employers and employees are frustrated by the current economics of healthcare – and face practical realities that transcend the political discourse of Trumpcare vs. Obamacare. Employees are shouldering the costs of healthcare, paying more out of pocket with high deductible health plans. Healthcare is the second-highest category of out-of-pocket spend for median income U.S. families, with only housing costing more. Additionally, employers are experiencing the brunt of an inefficient healthcare system with more money diverted to treating illness than keeping employees healthy, happy and productive.
We can and need to do better for Americans. Which is why it is especially encouraging to see that Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan are taking action to appropriately demand more value out of each and every dollar spent. One of the ironies of the healthcare system is that more than 70% of a person’s health status is derived from environment and lifestyle choices being made on a daily basis. Yet, little focus or investment has been placed on how to best support consumers and guide them toward healthy behaviors. At what point are the choices that a consumer makes related to their health, as important as the advice physicians dispel to patients?
As a “customer obsessed” organization built on “personalized recommendations” that is sitting on a treasure trove of data – Amazon appears to have the DNA to sponsor and lead a more consumer-centric approach to healthcare. This is exciting, but let’s not forget that other large organizations exist that also have tremendous data and technology assets that can be stirred in to help accelerate the cause and take quicker action. For example, at Welltok, we work with a number of innovative employers, providers and health plans that recognize the need to combine consumer data points (e.g., purchasing habits and transportation choices) and traditional clinical and claims data to understand and predict how to best engage consumers in their health. Big data can be so powerful – if used in the right way. It can reveal things like which consumers are more likely to be hospitalized for the flu or identify who would be most receptive to pre-diabetes interventions, stress management coaching or sleep improvement programs.
Amazon has built a multi-billion-dollar business with its personalized recommendation engine and incentive model of free shipping and on-demand access. This type of thinking and technology is precisely what is needed to move healthcare away from its one-fits-size-all mentality. Rather than taking a population health approach and treating people as diabetics or asthmatics, we can engage individuals based on their unique needs and goals. This puts Americans in the driver’s seat as consumers of healthcare improvement resources as well as traditional healthcare goods and services. Personalized, on-demand access to relevant resources aligned with incentives for participating in health activities (from eating healthier to managing a chronic condition) not only gives consumers greater access, but also a financial stake in improving their health. And, takes us one (enormous) step closer to a system that helps people achieve and sustain their highest health status at all times throughout the year – not just when they are sick – by systematically connecting consumers with the resources, content and knowledge they need to take action.
Finally, it should not be overlooked that “activating” consumers requires a deep understanding of how the existing healthcare system works, and how and why it needs to change. Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet and Jamie Dimon have each created seismic shifts in previously parochial industries. I have personally – as a consumer, and as a CEO – benefited from their bold initiatives and deep understanding of the industries they are disrupting. Similarly, they will need to be respectful and knowledgeable of the existing healthcare system to successfully drive change. I was encouraged by prepared statements in which both Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet humbly recognized the complexity of the healthcare system and need to both respect and deeply understand the entrenched system. It will behoove them to not only assemble the right teams and technologies, but also partner with organizations that have many years of experience understanding the nuances of healthcare data security and privacy issues, as well as the regulatory framework surrounding employer-based and government-sponsored healthcare programs.
This news is the shot in the arm the healthcare industry needs to acknowledge the largest, untapped resource in healthcare – consumers. While this will be a long-term initiative that will not happen overnight, it is good to see that some of the largest employers in the country are seizing the opportunity to leverage today’s technology advancements, data exposition and cross-industry collaboration to drive much needed change.