We’ve been defining the independent physician landscape wrong—here’s a new approach

Physician groups and their funders—you've been thinking about their  relationship wrong

We’ve historically divided the physician landscape in two parts: hospital-employed or independent. But over time, the “independent” segment has become more complex and inclusive of more types of groups who don’t fit the traditional definition of shareholder-owned and shareholder-governed. Even true independent groups don’t look like they once did, adapting in ways like receiving funding from a range of investors or adding more employed physicians.

So our standard way of thinking—hospital-employed or independent—has become obsolete. It’s time for a more nuanced approach to a diversified market.

When the pace of investment and aggregation in the independent space picked up, we conceptualized the changes primarily in terms of funder: private equity, a health plan, a health system, or another independent group.

That made sense at the time because each type of funder was using similar methods to partner with groups—health systems acquired, private equity invested directly in the independent group, and so forth.

But the market has shifted such that remaining independent groups are both stronger and more committed to independence. So organizations who want to partner with these groups have had to refine and diversify their value propositions—and often times are doing so without all-out acquisition. For more information on themes within these funder organizations, see our companion blog.

We set out to make sense of an ever-changing independent physician landscape in a way that would make it easier to understand for both independent groups and for those who work with them. Instead of dividing the landscape by funder, we assessed organizations based on their level of autonomy vs. integration, their growth model, and their geographic reach.

The map above has five physician practice archetypes and is oriented around two axes: local to national and autonomy to integration. The four archetypes on the top are larger in scale than a traditional independent medical group, often moving regionally and then nationally.

The archetypes are also ordered based on the degree of physician and practice autonomy, with organizations on the right using more of an integrated and standardized model for care delivery and sharing a brand identity.

So far, we’ve tracked two types of trends within this landscape. First, independent groups partner with national archetypes in one of two ways. Either the groups continue to exist as both independent groups and as part of the corporate identity OR they get integrated into the corporate entity. The exception is that we have not seen national chains integrate existing medical groups—though they may in the future.

The other trend we have seen is the evolution of some of these archetypes. We currently see service partners in the market shift to look more like coalitions. We assume we may see coalitions that start to look more like aggregators, and we know many aggregators have ambitions to function more like national chains. 

Below you will find a brief description of each archetype as well as a more robust table of key characteristics.

Definitions of physician archetypes

Independent medical group

Independent medical groups are traditional shareholder-owned, shareholder-governed practices. They are governed by a board of physician shareholders, and shareholders derive direct profits from the group.

Service partner

A service partner is an organization whose primary ambition is to make profits through providing a service, such as technology, data, or billing infrastructure, to physician groups. This type of partner may create some sort of alignment between practices since it sells to like-minded practices (e.g., those deep in value-based care, within the same specialty), but that alignment is more of a byproduct than the primary goal.

Coalition

Coalitions are formed from physician practices who want to get benefits of scale without giving up any individual autonomy. They join a national organization to share resources, data, and/or knowledge, but each practice also retains its individual local identity and branding. Common coalition models include IPAs, ACOs, and membership models.

Aggregator

Aggregators are the most traditional approach to getting scale from independent medical groups. They acquire practices and usually employ their physicians. The range of aggregators is very diverse. It includes health plans, health systems, private equity investors, and independent medical groups who have shifted to become aggregators themselves.

National chain

We have historically referred to national chains as disruptors, but that name is inclusive of many organizations who are not physician practices and what qualifies as “disruptive” is ever-changing—so we needed a new name that better suited these groups. National chains are corporate organizations who develop a model (e.g., consumerism, value-based care, virtual health) and bring that model to scale, usually by building new practices or hiring new providers. These are highly integrated organizations, with each new location using the same care delivery model and infrastructure.

As the independent physician landscape evolves, it has implications not only for independent groups but for those who work with them. We hope that a shared terminology helps bridge some of the gaps in understanding this complex landscape.

For those who partner with independent groups, we’d suggest reading our companion blog for our take on the three biggest funders and questions to ask yourself to work successful with today’s physician groups.

Private equity as an enabler of Boomer doctor retirements

https://mailchi.mp/13ef4dd36d77/the-weekly-gist-august-27-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

How Much Money Does a Doctor Need to Retire? — Finity Group, LLC

There’s been a lot of hand wringing over the ongoing feeding frenzy among private equity (PE) firms for physician practice acquisition, which has caused health system executives everywhere to worry about the displacement effect on physician engagement strategies (not to mention the inflationary impact on practice valuations).

While we’ve long believed that PE firms are not long-term owners of practices, instead playing a roll-up function that will ultimately end in broader aggregation by vertically-integrated insurance companies, a recent conversation with one system CEO reframed the phenomenon in a way we hadn’t thought of before. It’s all about a demographic shift, she argued.

There’s a generation of Boomer-aged doctors who followed their entrepreneurial calling and started their own practices, and are now nearing retirement age without an obvious path to exit the business. Many didn’t plan for retirement—rather than a 401(k), what they have is equity in the practice they built.

What the PE industry is doing now is basically helping those docs transition out of practice by monetizing their next ten years of income in the form of a lump-sum cash payout. You could have predicted this phenomenon decades ago.

The real question is what happens to the younger generations of doctors left behind, who have another 20 or 30 years of practice ahead of them? Will they want to work in a PE-owned (or insurer-owned) setting, or would they prefer health system employment—or something else entirely?

The answer to that question will determine the shape of physician practice for decades to come…at least until the Millennials start pondering their own retirement.

Physician employment continues to gather pace

https://mailchi.mp/b5daf4456328/the-weekly-gist-july-23-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The number of independent physician practices continued to decline nationwide as health systems, payers, and investors accelerated their physician acquisition and employment strategies during the pandemic.

The graphic above highlights recent analysis from consulting firm Avalere Health and the nonprofit Physicians Advocacy Institute, finding that nearly half of physician practices are now owned by hospital or corporate entities, meaning insurers, disruptors, or other investor-owned companies.

This increase has been driven mainly by a surge in the number of corporate-owned practices, which has grown over 50 percent across the last two years. (Researchers said they were unable to accurately break down corporate employers more specifically, and that the study likely undercounts the number of practices owned by private equity firms, given the lack of transparency in that segment.

It’s no surprise that we’re seeing an uptick in physician employment, as about a quarter of physicians surveyed a year ago claimed COVID was making them more likely to sell or partner with other entities, and last year saw independent physicians’ average salary falling below that of hospital-employed physicians. 

We expect the move away from private practice will continue throughout this year and beyond, as physicians seek financial stability and access to capital for necessary investments to remain competitive. 

In search of the “clinician strategist”

https://mailchi.mp/26f8e4c5cc02/the-weekly-gist-july-16-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

How to make figuring out what to propose simple - PropLibrary

We’ve been working with a CEO and his strategy team around their health system’s five-year strategic plan. It’s still early in development, and they’re considering some bold moves. Given that some of the ideas are disruptive, he astutely observed they needed to bring a clinical leader into the process before the strategy is fully developed, but he’s having trouble identifying the right physician to be part of the very small executive working group. 

We began listing the important attributes, creating a rough job description for a “clinician strategist”: the ability to consider clinical and operational implications but not get bogged down in details; bold, big-picture thinking and a willingness to take risks; strong communication and leadership skills.

As the list grew longer, we began to wonder if we were really telling the CEO to chase a unicorn. Some of the characteristics that typically make for an outstanding clinician—reliance on data and evidence, lower risk tolerance—might conflict with embracing disruptive change. Much of strategic decision making is about finding “80-20” compromises, while doctors often tend to get bogged down in detail (for good reason) and are quick to poke holes.

And our ideal physician strategist, out of a desire to safeguard patient care, might sometimes find that the strategy team isn’t adequately considering the ramifications for quality and safety. Finding a physician leader who also has the skills of a chief strategy officer is indeed a rare thing. It’s probably a better bet to identify early-career doctors who have the right mindset and an interest in strategy and help them develop their leadership skills over time. 

Regardless, this CEO’s instinct was correct. Bringing doctors into the strategy-setting process early is crucial, even if the perfect clinician strategist might prove difficult to find. 

How would “Medicare at 60” impact health system margins?

https://mailchi.mp/26f8e4c5cc02/the-weekly-gist-july-16-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

An estimate from the Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future predicts that nearly four out of five 60- to 64-year-olds would enroll in Medicare, with two-thirds transitioning from existing commercial plans, if “Medicare at 60” becomes a reality.

In the graphic above, we’ve modeled the financial impact this shift would have on a “typical” five-hospital health system, with $1B in revenue and an industry-average two percent operating margin. 

If just over half of commercially insured 60- to 64-year-olds switch to Medicare, the health system would see a $61M loss in commercial revenue.

There would be some revenue gains, especially from patients who switch from Medicaid, but the net result of the payer mix shift among the 60 to 64 population would be a loss of $30M, or three percent of annual revenue, large enough to push operating margin into the red, assuming no changes in cost structure. (Our analysis assumed a conservative estimate for commercial payment rates at 240 percent of Medicare—systems with more generous commercial payment would take a larger hit.)

Coming out of the pandemic, hospitals face rising labor costs and unpredictable volume in a more competitive marketplace. While “Medicare at 60” could provide access to lower-cost coverage for a large segment of consumers, it would force a financial reckoning for many hospitals, especially standalone hospitals and smaller systems.

Why this insurance CEO thinks big healthcare brands are losing significance

Healthcare Branding: How to Make Your Healthcare Brand Stand Out page

Legacy health brands are losing their significance as healthcare consumers place higher value on convenience than reputation. That’s the idea behind a July 1 tweet by Sachin Jain, MD, the CEO of Scan Group and Scan Health Plan.

“We are in an era of the declining significance of big healthcare brands,” he said.

To Dr. Jain, big healthcare brands are the ones commonly known for being the best in a specific specialty or renowned in their region. While many big healthcare brands have high quality performance metrics to hang their clout on, Dr. Jain believes reliance on name alone is problematic.

“There’s been an arrogance by a lot of healthcare organizations that have kind of sold on brand. There’s going to be a reckoning for some of those organizations. My personal view is that the next generation of healthcare consumers is going to be less aligned to think about brands in the same way,” Dr. Jain told Becker’s.

Today’s patients are paying more attention to convenience, digital access and price than reputation. Cost of care, ease of scheduling and accessibility are beating out recognition, Dr. Jain said.

At Scan, Dr. Jain said the Long Beach, Calif.-based Medicare Advantage insurer that serves more than 220,000 members is hyperfocused on staying as human as possible and fulfilling unmet needs for its community.

“Elite healthcare brands are entering this fun phase where they are becoming underdogs. They need to have a chip on their shoulders almost to thrive and perform in this next phase,” Dr. Jain said. “Because I’m not sure payers are necessarily going to continue to pay the same premiums per brand.”

Is it time to take Physicians off the Hamster Wheel?

https://mailchi.mp/bfba3731d0e6/the-weekly-gist-july-2-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

7 Smart Strategies for Paying Off Medical School Debt | Student Loan Hero

In theory, the idea of salaried compensation for employed physicians makes a lot of sense. For one thing, it’s blessedly simple, with the potential to remove the tensions that arise in shifting to value-based payment or implementing lower-cost (but lower-reimbursement) care models like telemedicine.

However, medical group leaders have long feared that productivity would tank if doctors were put on salary. (As a consulting colleague said recently, the switch to salary would cause a 20+ percent drop in productivity in the medical group, creating a challenge akin to keeping an airline profitable after removing a quarter of the seats on its planes). We’ve been expecting that more doctors might seek stable compensation models in the wake of the pandemic, and so weren’t entirely surprised when the question of moving to straight salary came up in three conversations over the past two weeks.
 
In all three cases, leaders are hoping to create more predictability, and to decrease the resources and effort needed to execute against a menu of complex plans. They believe that a move to salary is inevitable, and their questions have more to do with timing. 

Gauging when to make the move should be determined not by external market shifts, but by internal cultural and operational readiness. Are the systems in place to enable doctors to work at a high level of efficiency? And do we have the group collaboration needed to maintain high performance without paying doctors as if they are salesmen on commission?

Another wrinkle has popped up for groups who might be ready now: the past year has upended the benchmarks that groups might otherwise use to inform decisions on where to set salaries. Nevertheless, over time we expect more groups to move in this direction, with the hope of getting off the “hamster wheel” of compensation committee meetings and ever more exotic permutations of bonus plans, in search of a more stable model.

‘I only see the potential for massive financial loss’: Former Spectrum CFO doubts value of Beaumont merger

I only see the potential for massive financial loss': Former Spectrum CFO  doubts value of Beaumont merger

Michael Freed, the former CFO of Spectrum Health, said he was “stunned” when he heard that the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based system plans to pursue a merger with Southfield, Mich.-based Beaumont Health, for myriad reasons. 

In a June 24 open letter to Spectrum’s board of directors, Mr. Freed said during his tenure they discussed possible mergers routinely and that a Spectrum-Beaumont combination “brought nothing new with it” and wouldn’t enhance value. 

“The markets didn’t overlap, so there were no significant administrative savings opportunities. The ability of each hospital to grow wasn’t enhanced by adding the other to the ‘system,'” Mr. Freed wrote. “In short, I never saw how such a merger could improve health, enhance value or make care more affordable. I still don’t.”

Mr. Freed was Spectrum’s CFO from May 1995 to December 2013. During his tenure, he helped oversee the formation of Spectrum and a substantive period of growth for the Michigan system. Mr. Freed also served as CEO of Spectrum’s health plan, Priority Health, from May 2012 until he retired in January 2016.

In his letter, Mr. Freed outlined several reasons he was “stunned” by the pursuit of the merger that would create a health system with 22 hospitals, 305 outpatient centers and about $13 billion in operating revenue.

Mr. Freed wrote that the merger with Beaumont, which is based in Southfield, Mich., may not be in the best interest of West Michigan. He said the combination of the two systems raises questions about whether governance truly will remain in the region and with Spectrum, if financial transparency will continue and if Spectrum will continue to honor the consent decree it signed in 1997 establishing a set of operational guidelines. 

If the merger moves forward, “debt can be placed on the books of West Michigan while investments EARNED IN West Michigan could be spent in SE Michigan … and vice versa,” Mr. Freed wrote. “If this entity should someday merge with other out-of-state entities, West Michigan could find itself investing in healthcare in other states as well, rather than in its own health.”

Mr. Freed raised concerns over the agreement between Spectrum and Beaumont to create a 16-person board of directors, seven of whom would come from Spectrum and seven from Beaumont. The CEO would come from Spectrum, and one new board member will be appointed. 

“While this structure looks to favor Spectrum Health initially, it would only take the hiring of a board member more favorable to Beaumont Health and the replacement of the CEO (in favor of Beaumont Health) for Spectrum Health to find itself outvoted 9 to 7 on key issues,” Mr. Freed said.

Additionally, Mr. Freed noted that the merger has the potential for massive financial losses to West Michigan. In particular, Mr. Freed said losses would stem from the financial assets of Spectrum and Priority Health no longer residing in West Michigan. 

“I’ll admit, I don’t see any value in this merger,” Mr. Freed wrote. “I only see the potential for massive financial loss, both historically and an undetermined amount going forward, to the region that produced all of Spectrum Health.” 

Mr. Freed urged the Spectrum board to take a few steps before moving forward with the merger, including selling or divesting Priority Health. 

“When you sign the documents that will permanently change this region, your signature will forever hold you accountable for the repercussions,” Mr. Freed wrote. “Please sign carefully.” 

Spectrum Health told MiBiz it remains committed to the commitments in the 1997 consent agreement and that it “remains enthusiastic” about the merger.

“Spectrum Health is fully committed to fulfilling its consent decree obligations and will continue to uphold its tenets,” the health system said. “We remain confident that creating a new system not only meets our current obligations to our local communities but will also improve the health of individuals in West Michigan and throughout the state.”

Access the full letter here