Hospital systems can employ artificial intelligence to reduce the types of health inequities that have made communities of color more vulnerable to COVID-19, the leader of one of the nation’s largest health systems says.
“At Northwell Health, New York’s largest health system, we know health disparities will only grow worse if we don’t move more quickly to identify and correct them,” Michael Dowling, president and CEO of New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, wrote in a May 11 news release with Tom Manning, chair of Ascertain, an AI venture between Northwell and Aegis Ventures. “To do that, we have turned to AI to disrupt this future.”
For instance, health systems can utilize AI to forecast which expectant mothers could benefit from early intervention and specialized care to treat preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure that affects Black women at three times the rate of white women, the executives wrote.
Organizations can also use health screenings and predictive models to determine which patients are most likely to develop chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension, the men wrote. In addition, systems should diligently research AI health care applications, such as the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us initiative, which seeks to obtain health data from a representative sample of the U.S. population.
Dowling and Manning noted that health systems must also commit to high standards of data integrity outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and apply the Hippocratic oath to AI to make sure it does not widen health inequities.
The explosion of apps, wearables, and other health tech solutions targeted at employers has overwhelmed and frustrated many HR executives who make decisions about employee health benefits. At a recent convening of health insurance brokers we participated in, several bemoaned the challenge of helping their clients understand which solutions might bring real value.
One shared, “For the past few years, it’s felt like ‘App-apalooza’ out there. CHROs [chief human resource officers] get pitches for new apps every day…there are literally thousands out there saying they’ll reduce costs and improve employee health, but it’s next to impossible to tell which ones of them actually work.”
Brokers expressed surprise at how little evidence, or in some cases, actual patient and client experience, some health tech companies brought to the table: “We have startups coming to our clients talking about their millions of dollars in funding, but when you dig into what they’re actually doing, not only can they not show outcomes data, you find out they’ve only worked with a few dozen patients!”
But among the sea of apps purporting to manage any and every employee health need, from chronic disease to fertility to sleep quality, brokers reported their clients were finding value in a few distinct areas.
Technology-based mental health solutions received high marks for increasing access to care, with the prediction that “tele-behavioral health could become a standard part of most benefits packages very quickly”.
More surprisingly, employers shared positive feedback on the impact of virtual physical therapy solutions: “I was skeptical that it would work, but people like being able to rehab at home. And not only is it cheaper, we’re seeing higher adherence rates.”
But even the best apps are often challenged by a lack of connectivity to the rest of a patient’s healthcare. The technologies that will have the greatest staying power will be those that not only deliver results, but are able to move beyond point solutions to become part of an integrated care experience, meaningfully connected to other providers involved in a patient’s care.
We’re picking up on a growing concern among health system leaders that many states with “certificate of need” (CON) laws in effect are on the cusp of repealing them. CON laws, currently in place in 35 states and the District of Columbia, require organizations that want to construct new or expand existing healthcare facilities to demonstrate community need for the additional capacity, and to obtain approval from state regulatory agencies. While the intent of these laws is to prevent duplicative capacity, reduce unnecessary utilization, and control cost growth, critics claim that CON requirements reduce competition—and free market-minded state legislators, particularly in the South and Midwest, have made them a target.
One of our member systems located in a state where repeal is being debated asked us to facilitate a scenario planning session around CON repeal with system and physician leaders. Executives predicted that key specialty physician groups would quickly move to build their own ambulatory surgery centers, accelerating shift of surgical volume away from the hospital.
The opportunity to expand outpatient procedure and long-term care capacity would also fuel investment from private equity, which have already been picking up in the market. An out-of-market health system might look to build microhospitals, or even a full-service inpatient facility, which would be even more disruptive.
CON repeal wasn’t all downside, however; the team identified adjacent markets they would look to enter as well. The takeaway from our exercise: in addition to the traditional response of flexing lobbying influence to shape legislative change, the system must begin to deliver solutions to consumers that are comprehensive, convenient, and competitively priced—the kind of offerings that might flood the market if CON laws were lifted.
Insurers, retailers, and other healthcare companies vastly exceed health system scale, dwarfing even the largest hospital systems. The graphic above illustrates how the largest “mega-systems” lag other healthcare industry giants, in terms of gross annual revenue.
Amazon and Walmart, retail behemoths that continue to elbow into the healthcare space, posted 2021 revenue that more than quintuples that of the largest health system, Kaiser Permanente. The largest health systems reported increased year-over-year revenue in 2021, largely driven by higher volumes, as elective procedures recovered from the previous year’s dip.
However, according to a recent Kaufman Hall report, while health systems, on average, grew topline revenue by 15 percent year-over-year, they face rising expenses, and have yet to return to pre-pandemic operating margins.
Meanwhile, the larger companies depicted above, including Walmart, Amazon, CVS Health, and UnitedHealth Group, are emerging from the pandemic in a position of financial strength, and continue to double down on vertical integration strategies, configuring an array of healthcare assets into platform businesses focused on delivering value directly to consumers.
The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. launched its online pharmacy in January, offering low-cost versions of high-cost generic drugs. And it all started with a cold email.
Alex Oshmyansky, MD, PhD, fired off an email to Mr. Cuban with a simple subject line: “Cold pitch.” The then 33-year-old radiologist told Mr. Cuban about work he was doing in Denver with a compounding pharmacy and the business plan behind a company he founded in 2018, Osh’s Affordable Pharmaceuticals.
“I asked him a simple question, because this was when the whole pharma bro thing was going down,” Mr. Cuban said on NPR podcast The Limits, referring to convicted felon Martin Shkreli. “I was like, ‘Look, if this guy can jack up the prices 750 percent for lifesaving medicines, can we go the opposite direction? Can we cut the pricing? Are there inefficiencies in this industry that really allow us to do it and really make a difference?'”
Dr. Oshmyansky answered yes. Their weekly email correspondence continued for months. The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. was quietly founded in May 2020, and Dr. Oshmyansky now serves as its CEO. The company is organized as a public-benefit corporation, meaning it is for-profit but claims its social mission of improving public health is just as important as the bottom line.
“We basically created a vertically integrated manufacturing company that will start with generic drugs,” Mr. Cuban told NPR. A major component of the strategy is to bypass pharmacy benefit managers, which Mr. Cuban likens to bouncers at a club.
“They’re the ones who say, ‘Hey, I’m controlling access to all the big insurance companies. If you want this insurance company to sell your drug, you’ve got to pay the cover charge. All these drugs pay the cover charge to these PBMs through rebates, and because they’re paying the cover charges, the prices are jacked up,” Mr. Cuban told NPR. “We said we’re going to create our own PBM, we’re going to work directly with the manufacturers, and we’re not going to charge the cover charge.”
The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. marks the prices of its drugs up 15 percent, charges a $3 pharmacy fee to pay the pharmacists it works with, and a fee for shipping. “That’s it,” Mr. Cuban said on NPR. “There’s no other added costs. The manufacturers love what we’re doing for that reason.”
Others have set out before to disrupt pharma the way Mr. Cuban and Dr. Oshmyansky intend, but their downfall is cooperating or giving in to the PBMs, the entrepreneur noted.
“People always ask, well why didn’t somebody do this before? The reality is there’s so much money there, it’s hard not to be greedy,” Mr. Cuban said on the podcast. “If you get to any scale at all, those PBMs will start throwing money at you and saying, ‘Look, just play the game.’”
Mr. Cuban has indicated he has no intention to play the game.
“I could make a fortune from this,” Mr. Cuban told Texas Monthlylast fall. “But I won’t. I’ve got enough money. I’d rather f— up the drug industry in every way possible.”
Amazon Care, which contracts with employers, will now deliver its virtual care services nationwide. It also plans to expand its hybrid service offering—in which care is delivered by nurses dispatched to employees’ homes—to more than 20 new cities this year, including San Francisco, Miami, Chicago, and New York City. The company also announced it has secured new contracts with its subsidiary Whole Foods Market, as well as Hilton Hotels, semiconductor manufacturing company Silicon Labs, and staffing and recruiting firm TrueBlue.
The Gist: Amazon Care is looking to differentiate itself with a virtual-first, asset-light, hybrid service offering. But given the slow-moving and complex nature of employee health benefit contracting, Amazon’s recent moves could displace employer-facing point solutions, but present less of a threat to incumbent providers, instead offering a partnership opportunity for downstream care.
Ultimately, Amazon could combine its care delivery offerings with its pharmacy and diagnostics businesses to launch a robust direct-to-consumer offering—should the company find healthcare a lucrative and manageable market.
CVS Health announced it has struck a deal with Medable, a decentralized clinical trial software company, incorporating its offerings into MinuteClinics to help reach more patients for late-stage clinical trials. With over 40 percent of Americans living near a CVS pharmacy, CVS says it can help gather data and manage patients at MinuteClinic locations, and through its home infusion service, Coram. CVS has already cut its teeth in the clinical research space by conducting COVID-19 vaccine and treatment trials and testing home dialysis machines, and said it plans to engage 10M patients and open up to 150 community research sites this year.
The Gist: With this deal, CVS Health joins companies like Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences subsidiary, in taking advantage of patient appetite for clinical trials without regularly traveling to a research center, which became difficult during the pandemic.
Clinical research is a $50B market that has largely revolved around academic medical centers in large urban areas, which could see their dominance of the research business challenged. CVS’s entry into this space could lower the barriers to entry for community health systems to expand into clinical research.
Ultimately, the decentralization of the clinical trials business is a win for patients, especially groups that have historically been under-represented in medical research, including rural and lower-income individuals. They may find participation through a local pharmacy—or even completely virtually from the comfort of their own home—much more accessible, affordable, and convenient.
Massachusetts-based health system Wellforce recently appointed its first ever chief consumer officer, tapping an executive from a well-known sneaker brand.
Christine Madigan joined the health system to lead marketing and consumer engagement, Wellforce announced in January. She comes from New Balance Athletics, where she led the global marketing and brand management organization. Madigan was attracted to what she termed the “challenger brand” because of its nimble innovation strategy and its mission to help people live healthier. “I can’t imagine a more purpose-driven culture than that,” she told Fierce Healthcare.
“As a marketing veteran from consumer products, Christine understands the importance of envisioning and building services around consumer needs. She will be a great asset in improving and modernizing the way consumers engage with the health care industry,” David Storto, Wellforce’s executive vice president and chief strategy and growth officer, said in the announcement.
The move comes amid a rising trend in healthcare: executives sourced from outside the industry, and in particular from consumer brands, to lead innovation strategies. Fierce Healthcare spoke to several, some of whom have been in their roles for years. They agree that while there are many transferrable skills, there is also an advantage to being an outsider.
To Madigan, the core challenge remains the same business to business—understanding who the consumer is and the different ways they engage with one’s brand.
Aaron Martin, chief digital officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, who joined the health system from Amazon in 2016, echoed Madigan. “Bringing the patient focus—what we called at Amazon ‘customer obsession’—to Providence was key,” he told Fierce Healthcare.
Society is bombarded by healthcare marketing messages, Madigan noted. She wants to “drive some simplicity into the process.” While the system is built to provide reactive, acute care, Madigan sees preventive care as just as important. And a crucial part of facilitating that is establishing not only awareness of but trust in a provider. “Every detail matters in what you communicate in an experience,” she said.
And for organizations that don’t innovate, “somebody else is going to disrupt us,” Martin said.
To drive innovation at scale, Martin sees a disciplined strategy as key. At Amazon, that looked like picking an area to impact and measuring the value of closing that gap. Applying that to Providence, Martin worked with the clinical team to discover patients in need of low-acuity care were going to other providers instead of to Providence. So Providence launched ExpressCare, offering virtual appointments to recapture those patients and establish continuity of care.
Like Madigan, Novant’s chief digital and transformation officer Angela Yochem, who has held chief information officer roles at Rent-A-Center and BDP International, believes passive care is not enough to eradicate health inequities. “We’ve optimized for fixing things,” she said of the healthcare system. “I’d like to see the healthcare industry become more engaged continually. We need to understand our patients beyond what their last condition is,” she added, referring to social determinants of health.
“In retail, we used to say that customers shouldn’t have to shop our merchandising organizational chart,” said Prat Vemana, Kaiser Permanente’s chief digital officer, who transitioned in 2019 from chief product and experience officer at The Home Depot. To streamline how patients navigate an already highly fragmented healthcare system, Kaiser starts with the patient and works backward when developing digital experiences.
A challenge in healthcare, Vemana acknowledged, is the lag in data around health outcomes. Whereas in retail, results are immediately visible, healthcare is less straightforward. “We have to develop workarounds to get directional information while waiting to see the results,” he said.
The transformation of the sector won’t happen without diversity of thought and experience, Yochem said. It’s less about hiring from a particular sector and more about hiring from all over. Those people will have seen the potential for consumer engagement and will be able to “apply what we know to be possible,” Yochem said. Without those outsider insights in the insular sector, “you create an echo chamber, because you respond to problems in the same way.”
Another challenging year defined by the continued COVID-19 fight and vaccination drives has created a unique healthcare landscape. Pandemic-induced telehealth booms, continued strain due to understaffing and pressure from big tech disruptors are just some of the issues that have presented themselves this year.
Here are five major trends that hospitals and health systems may see in 2022. While some present challenges, others present significant opportunities for healthcare facilities.
Record numbers of workers have quit their jobs in 2021, with some 4.4 million people quitting in September. That means that 1 in 4 people quit their jobs this year across all industries. Around 1 in 5 healthcare workers have left their positions, creating issues with understaffing and lack of resources in hospitals and health systems. Stress, burnout and lack of balance have all been cited as reasons for staff leaving their roles. An increase in violence toward medical professionals, continued COVID-19 surges and low pay and benefits have contributed to the exodus of healthcare workers. None of those problems seems poised to disappear come 2022, so the new year could bring continued workforce and staffing challenges.
Pressure from disruptors
Big tech and retail giants have continued their push into healthcare this year. Companies like Apple, Amazon and Google stepped up their game in the wearables market. Pharmacy and retail chains Walmart and CVS Health both detailed their intended expansions into primary care. The pandemic also encouraged big corporations outside the healthcare sector, like Pepsi and Delta Airlines, to consider hiring CMOs to make sense of public health regulations guide them on their policy. These moves all mean there is a tightening of competition for the top physicians and hospital executives. Going into 2022, health systems may be under pressure to hang onto top talent and keep patients from using other convenient health services offered by retail giants.
The unequal toll of the pandemic on people of color both medically and economically helped shed a light on the rampant inequities in American healthcare and society at large. Indigineous, Black and Hispanic people were much more likely than white or Asian people to suffer severe illness or require hospitalization as a result of COVID-19. Increasing numbers of hospitals, health systems and organizations are starting initiatives to advance health equity and focus on the socioeconomic drivers of health. The American Medical Association launched a language guide to encourage greater awareness about the power of language. Z-code usage has also been encouraged by CMS to increase knowledge and data about the social determinants of health. Next year, the perspective of health as holistic instead of just a part of an individual’s life will continue, with special attention being paid to social drivers.
The pandemic helped the telemedicine industry take off in a big way. Telehealth was often the only healthcare option for many patients during the height of the lockdown measures introduced during the pandemic. Despite a return to in-person visits, telehealth has retained its popularity with patients. Some advocates argue that telehealth can help increase access to healthcare and improve health equity. About 40 percent of patients said that telehealth makes them more engaged and interact more frequently with their providers. However, while Americans see telehealth as the future of healthcare, a majority still prefer in-person visits. Regardless of patient opinion, telehealth will remain a key part of health strategy. In late December, the FCC approved $42.7 million in funding for telehealth for 68 healthcare providers. This suggests that there are investments and subsidies available in the future for health systems to bolster their telehealth services.
At the 2021 UN Climate Conference, Cop26, in Glasgow, Scotland, hospitals and health systems acknowledged the role they have to play in mitigating the effects of climate change. Hospitals and health systems shed light on the health-related effects of climate change, such as illness and disease from events like wildfires and extreme weather. Health systems are also becoming more aware of their own contributions to climate change, with the U.S. healthcare system emitting 27 percent of healthcare emissions worldwide. To that end, HHS created an office of climate change and health equity that will work alongside regulators to reduce carbon emissions from hospitals. More health systems too are taking charge and pledging net neutrality and zero carbon emissions goals, including Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealth group. It’s expected that more systems will follow suit in the coming year and make more concrete plans to address emissions reduction.
Edward Karlovich serves as the executive vice president and CFO for UPMC, a $23 billion provider and insurer based in Pittsburgh.
Since joining UPMC in 1990, Mr. Karlovich has served in several financial leadership roles. Most recently, he was vice president, CFO and chief of staff for UPMC’s Health Services Division. He became CFO of the entire integrated system with 40 hospitals in October 2020, after serving on an interim basis for about a year.
Here, Mr. Karlovich shares with Becker’s the skills he thinks CFOs need to succeed today, some key capital projects in the works at UPMC and his organization’s top financial priorities.
Editor’s note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.
Question: What is the most pressing issue facing hospital CFOs due to COVID-19?
Edward Karlovich: I would say the most pressing issue for me is disruption. COVID-19 has done many things to disrupt the way we think about our organization and business. Some disruptions we faced in the last year include staffing and supply chain challenges. UPMC did a great job weathering through the supply disruptions and labor challenges. We always had adequate personal protective equipment for our folks here. We also really made a conscientious decision last year to keep our workforce intact; we didn’t lay off workers, and we took care of people who needed time off because of COVID-19. We also made sure employees knew they had the support of our executive leadership team. In summary, COVID-19 has created a disruption, and we must think about how things are different now coming out of the disruption.
Q: What are some things you are doing to work through the change/disruption?
EK: From an organizational perspective, we embarked on what we call the “UPMC experience” a few years ago. We looked at the way we are doing things to understand the experience of our employees and patients. This prepared us to be more creative in our thinking as to how we address challenges and disruption. We also learned through this the importance of interdependencies. Our business, both provider and insurance side, discussed a need to tackle the disruptions in an integrated way and discussed a need to communicate changes effectively. This year, we provided about 40 news conferences to get the standard message out across all of our regions. We also have a 90,000-plus employee organization which allows you to move around resources to deal with some challenges and disruptions.
Q: What are UPMC’s top financial priorities for 2022?
EK: From a financial perspective, we want to maintain a positive margin to support our capital investments and employees. To do this, we are focused on a few things. First, supporting our operating employees to ensure they can perform to the best of their ability. They are the ones who make the difference each and every day. Second, we want to make sure we, as a finance team, can provide the things that the organization needs to be successful. This includes, but is not limited to, making sure supply chain folks can get all needed supplies and ensuring we have the cash collections needed to fund our organization. Another priority is making sure we provide the advice and guidance needed to invest our dollars effectively so we can prepare for the next challenge.
Q: What are a few key capital projects UPMC has in the works?
EK: UPMC is a premier provider in our community, and we operate a number of specialty hospitals in the area. We are the primary pediatric, psychiatric, women’s health and oncology provider in the region. Over the past couple of years, we’ve embarked on a journey to provide new facilities in western Pennsylvania for these major programs. We are also investing heavily in a vision and rehabilitation institute, which is a $500 million project that will put our clinicians, researchers and other providers together to drive breakthroughs in vision care and rehabilitation.
We also are going to embark on a new tower for UPMC Presbyterian Oakland Campus [in Pittsburgh]. It is going to be the largest capital project we’ve embarked on since I’ve been here. This project will be more than $1 billion and is so important to the community.
The third thing we are looking at is enhancing our oncology services and product at UPMC Shadyside [in Pittsburgh]. What we’ve recognized is that we are the provider and insurer of choice in western Pennsylvania, and we have to invest in this community for the next 50 to 100 years.
Q: What skills are essential for hospital and health system CFOs to thrive in today’s healthcare landscape?
EK: The technical skills are given as CFO. To get in that leadership position, you have to be able to perform the necessary tasks. However, to make your organization better, I could boil it down to four things. First, you have to be a partner to your other senior leaders. Finance doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You have to be in the room with those folks, helping them manage and drive the business. The second thing is flexibility. If you think about what we experienced as an industry over the last two years, if you weren’t flexible, you were going to be seriously challenged. Flexibility is such an important attribute because the pace of change is going to accelerate in our industry. Third, I’d say talent recognition is a key skill. It is important to be able to find talent as well as mentor and develop them as employees who can provide a great service to the organization. Fourth, you have to embody integrity. There is no doubt in my mind that integrity is a core value that is essential to everything you do as a finance leader. You have to maintain your integrity at all times. Those are essential skills. If you’re going to be a successful CFO now, you have to have those skills outside of the technical.
Q: What is one piece of advice you would offer to another healthcare CFO, and why?
EK: I’d say, look beyond the challenges of today. It’s not just about what you can actually see and envision in front of you. Try to look at the implications that are not necessarily top of mind. What the future holds is uncertain for all of us in healthcare now. You need to be thinking about what things might be coming down the road that will change our business and commitment to our communities dramatically. Try to brainstorm around that. Trying to think forward and speculate about what might happen is very valuable.