Everyone was talking about the FitBit.
The opening general session of the America's Health Insurance Plans conference wasn't about politics, rate negotiations or insurance exchanges—but about the growing influence of consumers and the digital tools that are key to building relationships with them.
Dr. Rodney Hochman, CEO of Providence Health and Services, Thursday opened up the health insurance sector's largest industry conference by describing the health system's three-prong strategy: managing population health, building a digital platform and strengthening the “core,” its focus on consumers.
“We believe that everything is going digital,” Hochman said, adding that healthcare and education have been the last two holdouts that are now racing to catch up. “We have to disrupt our own organization.”
To that end, the Renton, Wash.-based system recently hired two people from online retail giant Amazon to build its digital capabilities.
“They were shocked at our lack of consumer focus,” Hochman said. “It's almost scary and it makes them uncomfortable.”
Providence also has instituted e-visits and what Hochman described as “Uber home visits,” sending a doctor or nurse practitioner to a patient's home. “There's an incredible amount of convenience that can occur,” he said. “We're doing it.”
Highmark, the Pittsburgh-based insurer that recently acquired Allegheny Health Network to make it one of the country's largest integrated delivery networks, is also trying to speed up its timeline for introducing new technologies. It has introduced a new program that promises to vet an idea within 60 days, CEO David Holmberg said, holding up a small, round LINX device. Doctors had petitioned for the device to decrease the cost of managing gastroesophageal reflux disease.
As the health insurance business becomes increasingly commoditized, insurers are trying to figure out how to build relationships with their members, said Ahmed Albaiti, CEO of Medullan, a digital health consulting firm. “Nobody does retail without tech anymore,” he said.
Some insurers did try to dabble in offering health tracking technologies as a value-added service to their customers, but they're now being left in the dust by mass-market, consumer-focused products like the Apple Watch and FitBit. “The health plans interestingly completely missed that boat,” Albaiti said. There's still an opportunity to carve out a business niche--namely the ability to help patients manage and make sense of their information--but insurers aren't there yet, he added.
FitBit Tuesday said in a regulatory filing that it plans to raise $358 million in its proposed initial public offering.
The new digital tools will allow consumers to hold onto their own data and won't be tied to a particular platform from a provider or an insurer. “The insight is not just putting the data in one big container,” said Ash Shehata, U.S. advisory leader for health plans at KPMG, who drew a distinction between an electronic health records system and social and mobile technologies that are tied to the consumer.
Yet despite all the attention on consumerism, a study released Thursday by Accenture found that consumers still expect their employers to be heavily involved in their health insurance plans. A total of 94% expressed confidence that their workplaces would continue to offer coverage--and the number topped 90% even for vulnerable groups like part-time employees and retirees.
Moreover, 76% cited health insurance as a primary or important factor for continuing to work where they do.
“Most insurers are talking about the consumerism trend and I think this research really confirms that the employer plays a key role in that ecosystem,” said Joshua Tauber, manager at Accenture Strategy. “You can't take the group out of it.”