One of the most insightful and funniest writers in health care is recovering VC Lisa Suennen. With trusty sidekick Dave Shaywitz, she’s been doing Tech Tonics, one of these newly trendy (again) podcasts. And Sunday at Health 2.0 they interviewed my partner Indu Subaiya, and me. Want to know a little more aobut the backstory of Health 2.0? Listen in!
Let me start this story by telling you the end: I am just fine. For those of you who like me, there is nothing to worry about and all is well. For those of you who don’t like me, sorry to disappoint you, but you’re stuck with me for a while.
I’m telling you these things—news to make you happy or disappointed, depending on your point of view about me—because this story is about my recent trip to the hospital, an unexpected journey that I wasn’t sure I was going to talk about publicly.
First of all, I didn’t want people calling and fretting and thinking I was suddenly in need of hushed whispers and pats on the head and casseroles. Second of all, I didn’t want people thinking they were finally rid of me and gladly so. But mostly I wasn’t sure I was going to tell this story because I just didn’t want to make a big deal about it. But in the end, I couldn’t help myself. I decided I learned so much on my little stint on the other side of the healthcare desk that I felt I had to share.
It started as a bit of tachycardia, sadly brought on not by a George Clooney sighting, but rather by some anomaly of life which will likely never be known. As my heart started to race faster and faster over a series of hours, and when it became clear that I couldn’t count as high as my pulse was going, I called 911.
I hate to give away all the punch lines from my California Healthcare Foundation report on healthcare accelerators, so you will just have to read it for yourself. However, a few extra tidbits that didn’t make it in are here below (as you can imagine, I can’t be quite as Lisa-ish in a commissioned report as in my blog). Among my many discussions with a myriad of willing report interviewees (thanks to all of you!), I started collecting some funny stories that I have begun to refer to as Tales from the Accelerator Crypt. A few of them are here below for your amusement.
- From an East Coast Economic Development-Focused Accelerator: By far the worst idea pitched to us was from a company that proposed to prevent falls among the elderly with a vest containing an airbag whose deployment is triggered by EEG signals coming from a wearable computer brain interface. It’s probably obvious why this is so insane. Getting beyond who might actually wear such a thing around their home or to bed, can you imagine the number of erroneous deployments from the notoriously unpredictable, noisy EEG signal? If only they had made a video. That same week in the same city, I was amazed to be introduced to a rival company also developing a wearable airbag for accidental falls, but at least this one was triggered by an accelerometer. File under “You know wearables have jumped the shark when…”
- From a University Program in CA: The most awful pitch we had was from a clinician-entrepreneur whose answer to every probing question on commercial viability was “This is going to save countless lives.” It was his answer to every question, clinical to operational to financial. The most entertaining stage moment, however, was when a CEO of a company developing a ‘next generation’ needle-free injector did a live demonstration of his product by injecting himself with saline while up on stage doing his pitch. He unbuttoned his shirt, gave himself the shot and buttoned up again, claiming how painless it was. As he continued to speak, blood pooled and spread from the injection site, down his arm and across his entire white shirt. It was a slow motion disaster. He didn’t recover very well. Needless to say they didn’t win the demo day competition.
I am excited to announce that the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF) has just published a report, authored by me, about the state of healthcare Accelerators in the U.S. and around the world. For those of you who don’t know CHCF, it is a very large not-for-profit endowment that has a mission to improve the quality, cost and efficiency of healthcare delivered to the underserved populations of California. In so doing, they also provide a very valuable educational service to the overall healthcare community and fund the creation of reports like this one about Accelerators.
The new report, entitled Survival of the Fittest: Healthcare Accelerators Evolve Towards Specialization is available for download HERE.
This report is intended to update the report that CHCF released two years ago entitled “Greenhouse Effect: How Accelerators are Seeding Digital Health Innovation” about the then emerging field of healthcare Accelerators. I would have to say that two years later in 2014, these programs have definitely emerged.
All eyes are on the hullaballoo created by the challenges at Healthcare.gov and several of the states’ public insurance exchanges. Yet all the while, like in a magic show, attention has been diverted from the real action going on elsewhere. Quietly and in a relatively drama-free way, the private health insurance exchanges are busily taking over the world of insurance and, in my opinion, portend a radical set of changes in how our health insurance system operates.
Several years back, a number of companies began building private health insurance exchanges to initially help companies offload the incredible burden of retiree benefits. Companies such as Extend Health (now owned by Towers Watson), Senior Educators (now owned by Aon), and several others provided a way for large employers to get themselves out of the business (and balance sheet liability) of providing group benefits for retirees, instead providing them with money to purchase their own individual health policies through then small, now large companies. The private exchanges went about the business of building websites that work, call centers that buzz and a wide array of insurance product offerings at various prices. Now, several years later, hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of individuals are out there shopping their little hearts out, choosing their own plans, and dealing with the consequences of high deductibles and the like.
These various private exchanges are now poised and ready to begin serving active employees in 2014 as guaranteed issue (the requirement that all can be insured and no one turned away) goes into effect as a result of the Affordable Care Act. And lest you think this is a small marketplace, you are wrong. In 2008 there were about 120 million total employed workers and just over half of these worked for companies of 500 employees and above (39 million worked for companies with 5000 employees or more). In other words, we are talking about nearly half of American adults and that doesn’t even include the dependents they bring along into their insurance plan.
Interestingly, such large US employers as Walgreens and Petco and DineEquity (parent company of Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar® and IHOP® restaurants) are all-in on the private exchange program, committing to transfer all of their employees from group plans to the exchange to purchase individual plans come January 2014. The exchanges of Towers, Aon, Mercer, Buck Consultants and a plethora of others are alive and well and open for business at exactly the time when employers are trying to figure out how fast they can reasonably get out of the middle of health insurance administration and run for the hills.
As of last week, the heart of Obamacare is upon us with the opening of the health insurance exchanges (HIXs). And while some think this represents the heart of darkness, it is hard to imagine that anything will stop January 1, 2014 from coming and, with it, a new legal requirement for all Americans to have health insurance.
Ushering in this new world order, the HIXs are essentially a “Match.com” to put people together with insurance products, representing a way that, for the first time, Americans will directly purchase healthcare without the prospect of being denied coverage or having their employers buy on their behalf.
In fact, the new HIXs create a direct relationship between consumers and health insurers in a way that has never existed before, and with that comes the need to fundamentally disrupt traditional methods of delivering health insurance products. Not since the advent of employer-paid health insurance after World War II or the start of the Medicare program in 1966 has there been such a broad-scale opportunity for health system transformation.
There are few markets that are mandated by law to include virtually every single American man, woman and child, making the opportunity particularly juicy to investors. For those entrepreneurs who figure out how to transfer the secret sauce from cheeseburgers that impair health to insurance-related products and services that improve it, the next few years offer an opportunity to turn market confusion into gold.
Among the biggest opportunities are investments in technologies and services that power the new healthcare exchanges. Venture-backed companies, such as GetInsured.com, have emerged to provide the various state-sponsored exchanges with the back-end technology that enable comparison-shopping, financial transactions and enrollment support essential to operating the HIX marketplaces.
But while state and federal healthcare insurance exchanges are the main topic of conversation this week, much of the real action has and will continue to take place in private exchanges serving the large and small employer market, particularly as employers do the math and figure out it may be in their financial best interest to end their role as benefit plan intermediaries.
Today marks the beginning of the 8th annual Healthcare IT Week. Healthcare IT Week was started and continues on as a collaborative forum for public and private healthcare constituents to discuss the value of health information technology (health IT) for the U.S. healthcare system.
It is amazing to see how far health IT has come over the last 10-15 years. It has its own week! If, a decade ago, you told people that health IT would be a core focus of investors, entrepreneurs and everyone else in healthcare, the energy produced from the eye rolling alone could power the lights on the Las Vegas Strip for a month. The basic sentiment back then was this: Why would anyone invest in, think about, care about health IT when the consumer Internet was rocking and companies selling online dog food could get started on Monday and sold on Friday for a bull mastiff’s weight in gold?
Today it is quite clear that healthcare IT is a hugely significant part of any success we are having and will continue to have in transforming our healthcare system from one where 30% of cost and care is wasted or the result of error to one where value reigns supreme. We do not believe anyone rational would now argue that healthcare IT is non-essential to improving the quality, productivity, efficiency, cost and outcomes we produce in our healthcare system, although the path is not always smooth.
And it’s about time. Technology has been used to optimize and redefine virtually every key industry except healthcare. Manufacturing has gone from human assembly lines to robotics; banking has gone from tellers to home banking; travel has gone from agents with brochures to Travelocity; and yet in many ways, the fundamental practice of medicine hasn’t changed in decades.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics came out with its June jobs report this week and, consistent with usual trends, healthcare jobs are booming. In June 2013 there were approximately 20,000 new healthcare jobs in the U.S., ¾ of which were in the ambulatory care sector and ¼ of which were in hospitals. Healthcare jobs represented 10% of all new jobs created this month.
The June growth in healthcare jobs matches up to the average 19,000 new healthcare jobs we have seen created in each of the prior months of 2013 and the 12% job growth we have seen over the last five years. In a country where new jobs are viewed as even better than baseball, apple pie and mom herself, these new jobs should elicit a huge round of applause, or at least a stadium style wave, right?
Or should they?
Change the channel and a different set of policy makers, employers and industry experts will tell you that the only way to save our economy from ruin is to cut healthcare costs. Cutting healthcare costs means making the people who work within the system vastly more efficient, eliminating unnecessary medical care (and thus reducing the labor that goes along with it), and helping empower consumers to do things for themselves, including taking a more active role in reducing their own demand for healthcare services and, in some cases, doing at home what they might previously have used the healthcare system to do (e.g., diagnostics, home care, etc).
Two weeks ago I had the good fortune to be invited back to the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) to participate as a judge of a digital healthcare start-up competition. SXSW, which takes place in Austin, TX, is historically an indie music gathering that has evolved into a massive mainstream music conference as well as a monumentally huge film festival, like Sundance times twenty. There are literally hundreds of bands and films featured around town. There has now evolved alongside this a conference called Interactive that draws more than 25,000 people and focuses on technology, particular mobile, digital, and Internet.
In other words, SXSW has become one of the world’s largest gatherings of hoodie-sporting, gadget-toting nerd geniuses that are way too square to be hip but no one has bothered to tell them. Imagine you are sitting at a Starbucks in Palo Alto, CA among 25,000 people who cannot possibly imagine that the rest of the world still thinks the Internet is that newfangled thing used mainly for email and porn. SXSW is a cacophonous melting pot of brilliance, creativity, futuristic thinking, arrogance, self-importance, ironic retro rock and roll t-shirts and technology worship. One small example: very hard to get your hands on a charger for anything other than an iPhone 5 because, seriously, who would have anything else?
Patient monitoring outside the hospital has been a hot topic (and also a not so hot topic) for the past 15 years.
Starting back in the late 1990s with companies like Health Hero Network, a company whose products for patient home monitoring are still in use today, company after company has sought to bring a successful product to market. The holy grail: finding an easy, non-intrusive, and continuously reliable way to predict patients’ potentially serious medical problems when it is early enough to do something about them and prevent an acute and expensive episode of illness. Some of the newer companies are focused more on the wellness and tracking side of the equation, such as helping individuals see progress from an exercise or other preventive/health-inducing regimen.
So far this whole area has been a very tough nut for businesses to crack in the US in particular. While some studies have shown great positive effect, others have not. Insurance payment for these programs has been spotty at best and non-existent at worst; most of the current vendors are stuck in pilot hell without significant long term and widespread commitments from payers. There is a belief, veracity unknown as yet, that the proliferation of risk-based entities such as Accountable Care Organizations will change this and lead to broad adoption of ambulatory patient monitoring tools, angels will sing and a large number of hospitalizations and rehospitalizations will be avoided. That may be true, but remains to be seen.