As we’ve been discussing over the past few years, several environmental forces—shifting consumer behavior, evolving demographics, new technology, and a flood of new market entrants—are pushing health systems to adopt a more consumer-centric business model. Systems must develop the capabilities needed to create an omnichannel consumer loyalty and population management platform. This platform will be the foundation for connecting consumers, curating providers, and coordinating care.
To achieve this vision, health systems must deliver value across two dimensions: increasing their proximity to the consumer (our y-axis) and their proximity to the premium dollar (our x-axis), as shown in the graphic above. Traditionally, health systems have operated primarily in the lower-left quadrant, as “care suppliers.” Some have spent considerable time and resources across the last decade, pushing closer to the premium dollar, to become “population managers.” But, importantly, managing population health is neither patient-facing, nor something consumers demand and seek.
To build deeper consumer loyalty, health systems must also move up the y-axis, creating a “care ecosystem” that provides “anywhere, anytime” care through multiple channels, including virtual and home-based solutions. And for certain populations, like Medicare Advantage, it will make sense for many systems to also explore becoming the “premium owner”, owning the full care budget and ensuring the incentives to design a consumer-centric offering.
The ideal health system platform should combine all four of these identities, tailored to the local market situation.
While healthcare is delivered locally, the business of healthcare
is regional, and the regions are only getting bigger. Hospital
and health system mergers alike have continued to shift from
local to regional, and the recently announced merger between Advocate Aurora
Health and Atrium Health clearly highlights that the regions are only getting
Advocate Aurora, with a presence in Illinois and Wisconsin, and Atrium Health,
with a presence in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will
combine to create a $27 billion health system that will span six states and make it
one of the leading healthcare delivery systems in the country. The combined
organization, which will transition to a new brand, Advocate Health, will operate
67 hospitals and over 1,000 sites of care, employ nearly 150,000 teammates, and
serve 5.5 million patients. Together, Advocate Health will become the 6th largest
system in the country behind Kaiser Permanente, HCA Healthcare, CommonSpirit
Health, Ascension, and Providence.
We have seen a number of large health systems come together recently,
including Intermountain Healthcare + SCL Health to create a $15 billion revenue
system, Spectrum Health + Beaumont ($14 billion), NorthShore University Health
System + Edward-Elmhurst Healthcare ($5 billion), LifePoint Health + Kindred
Healthcare ($14 billion), and Jefferson Health + Einstein Healthcare Network ($8
The exact reasoning for each merger differs slightly, but one of the common
threads across all is scale. But not scale in the traditional M&A sense. Rather,
scale in covered lives; scale in physician infrastructure and alignment; scale in
clinical and operational capabilities; scale in technology, innovation, and
partnerships with non-traditional players; scale for capital access; and scale for
insurance risk to compete in a value-based world. It is no longer the strong
acquiring the weak. Rather, strong players are coming together to gain scale to
face the headwinds in a unified manner.
For Advocate Aurora and Atrium, coming together is about leveraging their combined clinical excellence,
advancing data analytics capabilities and digital consumer infrastructure, improving affordability, driving health equity, creating a next-generation workforce, research, and environmental sustainability. Together, they have pledged $2 billion to disrupt the root causes of health inequities across underserved communities and create more than 20,000 new jobs.
Both Advocate Aurora and Atrium are no strangers to mergers. Advocate and Aurora came together in 2018, and prior to that Advocate was intending to merge with NorthShore before being blocked due to anti-trust. Atrium has grown over the years, merging with systems such as Navicent Health in Georgia in 2018, Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina 2020, and Floyd Health System in Georgia in 2021. In the newly proposed merger, Advocate Aurora and Atrium are coming together via a joint operating arrangement where each entity will be responsible for their own liabilities and maintain ownership of their respective assets but operate together under the new parent entity and board. This may allow the combined entity more flexibility in local decision-making. The current CEOs, Jim Skogsbergh and Eugene Woods will serve as co-CEOs for the first 18 months, at which point Skogsbergh will retire, and Woods will take over as the sole CEO.
Mergers can come in various shapes and structures, but the driving forces behind consolidation are not unique. With the need to compete in value-based care, adequately manage risk, gain scale across covered lives, physicians, and points of access, successfully deliver affordable high-quality care, and the need to deal with the vertical and horizontal consolidation of the large-scale payers, the markets that health systems operate in must be large enough to be effective and relevant. We fully expect to see more of these larger scale health system mergers in the near term.
The physical delivery of healthcare is local, but, again, the business of healthcare is not; it is regional, and the regions are only getting bigger.
The combination of the Omicron surge, lackluster volume recovery, and rising expenses have contributed to a poor financial start of the year for most health systems. The graphic above shows that, after a healthier-than-expected 2021, the average hospital’s operating margin fell back into the red in early 2022, clocking in more than four percent lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Despite operational challenges, however, many of the largest health systems continue to garner headlines for their sizable profits, thanks to significant returns on their investment portfolios in 2021.
While CommonSpirit and Providence each posted negative operating margins for the second half of 2021, and Ascension managed a small operating profit, all three were able to use investment income to cushion their performance.
A growing number of health systems are doubling down on investment strategies in an effort to diversify revenue streams, and capture the kind of returns from investments generated by venture capital firms. However, it is unlikely that revenue diversification will be a sustainable long-term strategy.
To succeed, health systems must look to reconfigure elements of the legacy business model that are proving financially unsustainable amid rising expenses, shifts of care to lower-cost settings, and an evolving, consumer-centric landscape.