Running a health system recently has proven to be a very hard job. Mounting losses in the face of higher operating expenses, softer than expected volumes, deferred capex, and strained C-suite succession planning are just a few of the immediate issues with which CEOs and boards must deal.
But frankly, none of those are the biggest strategic issue facing health systems. The biggest
strategic issue is the reorganization of the American healthcare landscape into an ambulatory care
business that emphasizes competing for covered lives at scale in lower cost and convenient settings
of care. This shift in business model has significant ramifications, if you own and operate acute care
Village MD and Optum are two of the organizations driving the business model shift. They are
owned by large publicly traded companies (Walgreens and UnitedHealth Group, respectively). Both
Optum and Village MD have had a string of announced major patient care acquisitions over the past
few years, none of which is in the acute care space.
The future of American healthcare will likely be dominated by large well-organized and well-run
multi-specialty physician groups with a very strong primary care component. These physician
service companies will be payer agnostic and focused on value-based care, though will still be
prepared to operate in markets where fee-for-service dominates. They will deliver highly
coordinated care in lower cost settings than hospital outpatient departments. And these companies
will be armed with tools and analytics that permit them to manage the care for populations of
patients, in order to deliver both better health outcomes and lower costs.
At the same time this is happening, we are experiencing steady growth in Medicare Advantage.
And along with it, a stream of primary care groups who operate purpose-built clinics to take full risk
on Medicare Advantage populations. These companies include ChenMed, Cano Health and Oak
Street, among others. These organizations use strong culture, training, and analytics to better
manage care, significantly reduce utilization, and produce better health outcomes and lower costs.
Public and private equity capital are pouring into the non-acute care sectors, fueling this growth. As
of the start of 2022, nearly three quarters of all physicians in the US were employed by either
corporate entities (such as private equity, insurance companies, and pharmacy companies), or
employed by health systems. And this employment trend has accelerated since the start of the
pandemic. The corporate entities, rather than health systems, are driving this increasing trend.
Corporate purchases of physician practices increased by 86% from 2019 to 2021.
What can health systems do? To succeed in the future, you must be the nexus of care for the
covered lives in your community. But that does not mean the health system must own all the
healthcare assets or employ all of the physicians. The health system can be the platform to convene these assets and services in the community. In some respects, it is similar to an Apple iPhone. They are the platform that convenes the apps. Some of those apps are developed and owned by Apple. But many more apps are developed by people outside of Apple, and the iPhone is simply the platform to provide access.
Creating this platform requires a change in mindset. And it requires capital. There are many opportunities for health systems to partner with outside capital providers, such as private equity, to position for the future – from both a capital and a mindset point of view.
The change in mindset, and the access to flexible capital, is necessary as the future becomes more and more about reorganizing into an ambulatory care business that emphasizes competing for covered lives at scale in lower cost and convenient settings of care.