We’re hearing from health systems across the country that physician office, surgery and diagnostic volumes have mostly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Consumers appear to feel comfortable coming back to scheduled appointments as long as social distancing and capacity can be managed. But they’re more reticent to return to “unscheduled” care settings that may involve a long wait, like urgent care clinics and emergency departments, where visits have stabilized at 75 to 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
The latter in particular has proved concerning to hospitals leaders, who have begun to ask, what if ED volumes never fully come back? (Around 15 percent of ED visits convert to inpatient stays, on average, making the ED an important source of downstream revenue for hospitals.) We spoke recently with a health system COO who realistically thinks that 10 percent of the volume could be gone for good, and recognizes that “from a public health perspective, that’s probably a good thing”, given that lower-acuity, non-emergent patients account for a portion of the “lost” volume.
But concerns about patients delaying much-needed care persist—amplifying the need for alternate channels, both virtual and in-person, for patients to access care and quickly connect to more intensive services if needed. Hospital leaders would be wise to prepare for a “90 percent future”, and adjust revenue models and cost structures to be less dependent on admissions and procedures that come through the emergency department.
In-person doctor visits plummeted during the start of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, but have rebounded to a rate somewhat below pre-pandemic levels, according to a new analysis issued by The Commonwealth Fund and conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School, Harvard University and the life sciences firm Phreesia.
According to data compiled through Aug. 1, all physician visits were down 9% from pre-pandemic levels. That’s significantly improved compared to data from late March, when visits were down 58%. Although the rebound got major traction beginning in late April, it began plateauing in early June, when all visits were 13% lower than normal. As of early August, in-person visits were down 16% compared to pre-COVID levels. States that are currently coronavirus hot spots are seeing bigger declines than states where the case levels are lower.
Meanwhile, telemedicine encounters have settled in at rates much higher than pre-pandemic levels. However, they still make up just a fraction of patient-provider encounters for care. As of the start of this month, they comprised 7.8% of all such encounters. That’s compared to a peak of 13.8% in the latter part of April. Prior to COVID-19, they were only 0.1% of all visits.
COVID-19 has widely disrupted healthcare delivery in the United States. However, it is becoming clear that as the pandemic has become a part of everyday life for the time being, how patients visit their medical providers has also settled into a pattern.
According to Harvard researchers using data from Phreesia’s more than 50,000 provider clients, the plunge in patients seeing their physicians has rebounded from its nearly 60% dive in early spring. However, with all patient-physician encounters still consistently down from pre-COVID levels, the study’s authors warn that “the cumulative number of lost visits since mid-March remains substantial and continues to grow.”
Meanwhile, COVID-19 hotspots in the South and Southwest are depressing patient-provider encounters for the time being. Encounters were down as of late July by 15% in Arizona, Florida and Texas, compared to 12% in the Northeast and 8% in all other states.
Among medical specialties, only dermatology has seen a rebound beyond pre-COVID levels, with encounters up about 8% overall. But primary care visits are down 2%; surgery encounters, 9%; orthopedics, 18%; and pediatrics are in a 26% decline.
That the encounters between patients, doctors and other providers remains lower than normal has sparked some concerns about practices and other medical enterprises moving forward. HHS just earmarked $1.4 billion for nearly 80 children’s hospitals across the United States to try to shore them up financially.
The private sector has also undertaken an initiative to encourage patients to return to their providers. Insurer Humana, along with the Providence and Baylor Scott & White healthcare systems, launched an advertising campaign last month to encourage patients to seek out healthcare needs, even during the historic pandemic.
We’re increasingly convinced that virtual physician visits are just one part of a continuum of care that can be delivered in the convenience and safety of the patient’s home. Health systems that can deliver “care anywhere”—an integrated platform of virtual services consumers can access from home (or wherever they are) for both urgent needs and overall health management, coordinated with in-person resources—have an unprecedented opportunity to build loyalty at a time when consumers are seeking a trusted source of safe, available care solutions.
The graphic above outlines the key components of a comprehensive home-based care model,
which requires the integration of three main elements:
a technology backbone,
a supply chain to provide services like labs and diagnostics,
and a tiered, flexible workforce.
Of course, these infrastructure needs will increase with care acuity level, ranging from a simple virtual visit to home-delivered vaccination, all the way to hospital-level care at home. Delivering safe, accessible care within the home can be the foundation for an access platform that creates ongoing consumer loyalty—especially for systems who can build a financial model less dependent on payers’ long-term support for telemedicine reimbursement “parity”.
After reporting a $1.1 billion net loss in the first quarter, Kaiser Permanente’s revenue, operating income and net income for its nonprofit hospital and health plan units increased year over year in the second quarter of this year.
The Oakland, Calif.-based healthcare giant reported operating revenues of $22.1 billion in the second quarter of 2020, up 3.3 percent from the same period a year earlier. Kaiser also saw expenses decline about 1.5 percent year over year to $20 billion.
“Deferred elective surgeries and procedures due to stay-at-home orders across the communities we serve contributed heavily to our second quarter results by temporarily reducing our operating expenses,” Executive Vice President and CFO Kathy Lancaster said in an earnings release.
Kaiser spent $907 million on capital projects in the second quarter, up from $710 million in the same period a year earlier. The system made investments in technology and infrastructure, including reconfiguring hospitals and building new clinical capacity to care for COVID-19 patients.
The 39-hospital system ended the second quarter of this year with operating income of $2.1 billion, up from $1.1 billion in the same quarter last year.
Kaiser’s unique integrated model — it provides healthcare and health plans — makes it difficult to compare its financial results to those of other systems that do not receive member premiums. As of June 30, Kaiser had 12.4 million health plan members, 183,000 more than in December. Most of the growth occurred during open enrollment, which occurred pre-COVID-19, Kaiser Senior Vice President and Treasurer Tom Meier told Becker’s Hospital Review.
As a result of improved financial market conditions in the second quarter, the system reported strong growth in investment returns, Mr. Meier told Becker’s. That recovery pushed Kaiser’s net income to $4.5 billion in the second quarter of this year, up from $2 billion in the same period of 2019. In the first quarter of this year, Kaiser reported a nonoperating loss of $2.4 billion, generated largely by investment losses.
As the system continues to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring patients and health plan members have access to needed care and testing is a top priority, Chair and CEO Greg Adams said in an earnings release.
“We have now reintroduced care that was halted during the stay-at-home orders, expanded our services, especially virtual care, and are working with members to schedule care that may have been deferred,” Mr. Adams said. “Moreover, we are working to expand our testing capabilities by purchasing our own testing equipment and building Kaiser Permanente testing labs, partnering with state and local health departments to support robust contact tracing, helping to slow the spread of the virus through education and household prevention kits, and helping our customers maintain their health coverage through these difficult times.”
Looking at results for the first six months of this year, Kaiser reported net income of $3.4 billion on revenues of $44.7 billion. In the same period a year earlier, the system posted net income of $5.2 billion on revenues of $42.8 billion.
Provider executives already know America’s hospitals and health systems are seeing rapidly deteriorating finances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re just not yet sure of the extent of the damage.
By the end of June, COVID-19 will have delivered an estimated $200 billion blow to these institutions with the bulk of losses stemming from cancelled elective and nonelective surgeries, according to the American Hospital Association.
A recent Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA)/Guidehouse COVID-19 survey suggests these patient volumes will be slow to return, with half of provider executive respondents anticipating it will take through the end of the year or longer to return to pre-COVID levels. Moreover, one-in-three provider executives expect to close the year with revenues at 15 percent or more below pre-pandemic levels. One-in-five of them believe those decreases will soar to 30 percent or beyond.
Available cash is also in short supply. A Guidehouse analysis of 350 hospitals nationwide found that cash on hand is projected to drop by 50 days on average by the end of the year — a 26% plunge — assuming that hospitals must repay accelerated and/or advanced Medicare payments.
While the government is providing much needed aid, just 11% of the COVID survey respondents expect emergency funding to cover their COVID-related costs.
The figures illustrate how the virus has hurled American medicine into unparalleled volatility. No one knows how long patients will continue to avoid getting elective care, or how state restrictions and climbing unemployment will affect their decision making once they have the option.
All of which leaves one thing for certain: Healthcare’s delivery, operations, and competitive dynamics are poised to undergo a fundamental and likely sustained transformation.
Here are six changes coming sooner rather than later.
1. Payer-provider complexity on the rise; patients will struggle.
The pandemic has been a painful reminder that margins are driven by elective services. While insurers show strong earnings — with some offering rebates due to lower reimbursements — the same cannot be said for patients. As businesses struggle, insured patients will labor under higher deductibles, leaving them reluctant to embrace elective procedures. Such reluctance will be further exacerbated by the resurgence of case prevalence, government responses, reopening rollbacks, and inconsistencies in how the newly uninsured receive coverage.
Furthermore, the upholding of the hospital price transparency ruling will add additional scrutiny and significance for how services are priced and where providers are able to make positive margins. The end result: The payer-provider relationship is about to get even more complicated.
2. Best-in-class technology will be a necessity, not a luxury.
COVID has been a boon for telehealth and digital health usage and investments. Two-thirds of survey respondents anticipate using telehealth five times more than they did pre-pandemic. Yet, only one-third believe their organizations are fully equipped to handle the hike.
If healthcare is to meet the shift from in-person appointments to video, it will require rapid investment in things like speech recognition software, patient information pop-up screens, increased automation, and infrastructure to smooth workflows.
Historically, digital technology was viewed as a disruption that increased costs but didn’t always make life easier for providers. Now, caregiver technologies are focused on just that.
The new necessities of the digital world will require investments that are patient-centered and improve access and ease of use, all the while giving providers the platform to better engage, manage, and deliver quality care.
After all, the competition at the door already holds a distinct technological advantage.
3. The tech giants are coming.
Some of America’s biggest companies are indicating they believe they can offer more convenient, more affordable care than traditional payers and providers.
Begin with Amazon, which has launched clinics for its Seattle employees, created the PillPack online pharmacy, and is entering the insurance market with Haven Healthcare, a partnership that includes Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Walmart, which already operates pharmacies and retail clinics, is now opening Walmart Health Centers, and just recently announced it is getting into the Medicare Advantage business.
Meanwhile, Walgreens has announced it is partnering with VillageMD to provide primary care within its stores.
The intent of these organizations clear: Large employees see real business opportunities, which represents new competition to the traditional provider models.
It isn’t just the magnitude of these companies that poses a threat. They also have much more experience in providing integrated, digitally advanced services.
4. Work locations changes mean construction cost reductions.
If there’s one thing COVID has taught American industry – and healthcare in particular – it’s the importance of being nimble.
Many back-office corporate functions have moved to a virtual environment as a result of the pandemic, leaving executives wondering whether they need as much real estate. According to the survey, just one-in-five executives expect to return to the same onsite work arrangements they had before the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, capital expenditures, including new and existing construction, leads the list of targets for cost reductions.
Such savings will be critical now that investment income can no longer be relied upon to sustain organizations — or even buy a little time. Though previous disruptions spawned only marginal change, the unprecedented nature of COVID will lead to some uncomfortable decisions, including the need for a quicker return on investments.
5. Consolidation is coming.
Consolidation can be interpreted as a negative concept, particularly as healthcare is mostly delivered at a local level. But the pandemic has only magnified the differences between the “resilients” and the “non-resilients.”
All will be focused on rebuilding patient volume, reducing expenses, and addressing new payment models within a tumultuous economy. Yet with near-term cash pressures and liquidity concerns varying by system, the winners and losers will quickly emerge. Those with at least a 6% to 8% operating margin to innovate with delivery and reimagine healthcare post-COVID will be the strongest. Those who face an eroding financial position and market share will struggle to stay independent..
6. Policy will get more thoughtful and data-driven.
The initial coronavirus outbreak and ensuing responses by both the private and public sectors created negative economic repercussions in an accelerated timeframe. A major component of that response was the mandated suspension of elective procedures.
While essential, the impact on states’ economies, people’s health, and the employment market have been severe. For example, many states are currently facing inverse financial pressures with the combination of reductions in tax revenue and the expansion of Medicaid due to increases in unemployment. What’s more, providers will be subject to the ongoing reckonings of outbreak volatility, underscoring the importance of agile policy that engages stakeholders at all levels.
As states have implemented reopening plans, public leaders agree that alternative responses must be developed. Policymakers are in search of more thoughtful, data-driven approaches, which will likely require coordination with health system leaders to develop flexible preparation plans that facilitate scalable responses. The coordination will be difficult, yet necessary to implement resource and operational responses that keeps healthcare open and functioning while managing various levels of COVID outbreaks, as well as future pandemics.
Healthcare has largely been insulated from previous economic disruptions, with capital spending more acutely affected than operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic will very likely be different. Through the pandemic, providers are facing a long-term decrease in commercial payment, coupled with a need to boost caregiver- and consumer-facing engagement, all during a significant economic downturn.
While situations may differ by market, it’s clear that the pre-pandemic status quo won’t work for most hospitals or health systems.
[Readers’ Note: This is the first of two articles on the Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America. This article
examines how market forces are consolidating, rationalizing and redistributing acute care assets within the
broader industry movement to value-based care delivery. The second article, which will publish next month,
examines gaps in care delivery and the related public policy challenges of providing appropriate, accessible
and affordable healthcare services in medically-underserved communities.]
In her insightful 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore,
Michelle Wucker coins the term “Gray Rhinos” and contrasts them with “Black Swans.” That distinction is
highly relevant to the future of American hospitals.
Black Swans are high impact events that are highly improbable and difficult to predict. By contrast, Gray Rhinos are foreseeable, high-impact events that we choose to ignore because they’re complex, inconvenient and/or fortified by perverse incentives that encourage the status quo. Climate change is a powerful example
of a charging Gray Rhino.
In U.S. healthcare, we are now seeing what happens when a Gray Rhino and a Black Swan collide.
Arguably, the nation’s public health defenses should anticipate global pandemics and apply resources
systematically to limit disease spread. This did not happen with the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, COVID-19 hit the public healthcare infrastructure suddenly and hard. This forced hospitals and health systems to dramatically reduce elective surgeries, lay off thousands and significantly change care delivery with the adoption of new practices and services like telemedicine.
In comparison, many see the current American hospital business model as a Gray Rhino that has been charging toward unsustainability for years with ever-building momentum.
Even with massive and increasing revenue flows, hospitals have long struggled with razor-thin margins, stagnant payment rates and costly technology adoptions. Changing utilization patterns, new and disruptive competitors, pro-market regulatory rules and consumerism make their traditional business models increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, unsustainable.
Despite this intensifying pressure, many hospitals and health systems maintain business-as-usual practices because transformation is so difficult and costly. COVID-19 has made the imperative of change harder to ignore or delay addressing.
For a decade, the transition to value-based care has dominated debate within U.S. healthcare and absorbed massive strategic, operational and financial resources with little progress toward improved care outcomes, lower costs and better customer service. The hospital-based delivery system remains largely oriented around Fee-for-Service reimbursement.
Hospitals’ collective response to COVID-19, driven by practical necessity and financial survival, may accelerate the shift to value-based care delivery. Time will tell.
This series explores the repositioning of hospitals during the next five years as the industry rationalizes an excess supply of acute care capacity and adapts to greater societal demands for more appropriate, accessible and affordable healthcare services.
It starts by exploring the role of the marketplace in driving hospital consolidation and the compelling need to transition to value-based care delivery and payment models.
COVID’s DUAL SHOCKS TO PATIENT VOLUME
Many American hospitals faced severe financial and operational challenges before COVID-19. The sector has struggled to manage ballooning costs, declining margins and waves of policy changes. A record 18 rural hospitals closed in 2019. Overall, hospitals saw a 21% decline in operating margins in 2018-2019.
COVID intensified those challenges by administering two shocks to the system that decreased the volume of hospital-based activities and decimated operating margins.
The first shock was immediate. To prepare for potential surges in COVID care, hospitals emptied beds and cancelled most clinic visits, outpatient treatments and elective surgeries. Simultaneously, they incurred heavy costs for COVID-related equipment (e.g. ventilators,PPE) and staffing. Overall, the sector experienced over $200 billion in financial losses between March and June 20204.
The second, extended shock has been a decrease in needed but not necessary care. Initially, many patients delayed seeking necessary care because of perceived infection risk. For example, Emergency Department visits declined 42% during the early phase of the pandemic.
Increasingly, patients are also delaying care because of affordability concerns and/or the loss of health insurance. Already, 5.4 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. This will reduce incremental revenues associated with higher-paying commercial insurance claims across the industry. Additionally, avoided care reduces patient volumes and hospital revenues today even as it increases the risk and cost of future acute illness.
The infusion of emergency funding through the CARES Act helped offset some operating losses but it’s unclear when and even whether utilization patterns and revenues will return to normal pre-COVID levels. Shifts in consumer behavior, reductions in insurance coverage, and the emergence of new competitors ranging from Walmart to enhanced primary care providers will likely challenge the sector for years to come.
The disruption of COVID-19 will serve as a forcing function, driving meaningful changes to traditional hospital business models and the competitive landscape. Frankly, this is long past due. Since 1965, Fee-for-Service (FFS) payment has dominated U.S. healthcare and created pervasive economic incentives that can serve to discourage provider responsiveness in transitioning to value-based care delivery, even when aligned to market demand.
Telemedicine typifies this phenomenon. Before COVID, CMS and most health insurers paid very low rates for virtual care visits or did not cover them at all. This discouraged adoption of an efficient, high-value care modality until COVID.
Unable to conduct in-person clinical visits, providers embraced virtual care visits and accelerated its mass adoption. CMS and
commercial health insurers did their part by paying for virtual care visits at rates equivalent to in-person clinic visits. Accelerated innovation in care delivery resulted.
THE COMPLICATED TRANSITION TO VALUE
Broadly speaking, health systems and physician groups that rely almost exclusively on activity-based payment revenues have struggled the most during this pandemic. Vertically integrated providers that offer health insurance and those receiving capitated payments in risk-based contracts have better withstood volume losses.
Modern Healthcare notes that while provider data is not yet available, organizations such as Virginia Care Partners, an integrated network and commercial ACO; Optum Health (with two-thirds of its revenue risk-based); and MediSys Health Network, a New Yorkbased NFP system with 148,000 capitated and 15,000 shared risk patients, are among those navigating the turbulence successfully. As the article observes,
…providers paid for value have had an easier time weathering the storm…. helped by a steady source of
income amid the chaos. Investments they made previously in care management, technology and social
determinants programs equipped them to pivot to new ways of providing care.
They were able to flip the switch on telehealth, use data and analytics to pinpoint patients at risk for
COVID-19 infection, and deploy care managers to meet the medical and nonclinical needs of patients even
when access to an office visit was limited.
Supporting this post-COVID push for value-based care delivery, six former leaders from CMS wrote to Congress in
June 2020 calling for providers, commercial insurers and states to expand their use of value-based payment models to
encourage stability and flexibility in care delivery.
If value-based payment models are the answer, however, adoption to date has been slow, limited and difficult. Ten
years after the Affordable Care Act, Fee-for-Service payment still dominates the payer landscape. The percentage of overall provider revenue in risk-based capitated contracts has not exceeded 20%
Despite improvements in care quality and reductions in utilization rates, cost savings have been modest or negligible. Accountable Care Organizations have only managed at best to save a “few percent of Medicare spending, [but] the
amount varies by program design.”
While most health systems accept some forms of risk-based payments, only 5% of providers expect to have a majority (over 80%) of their patients in risk-based arrangements within 5 years.
The shift to value is challenging for numerous reasons. Commercial payers often have limited appetite or capacity for
risk-based contracting with providers. Concurrently, providers often have difficulty accessing the claims data they need
from payers to manage the care for targeted populations.
The current allocation of cost-savings between buyers (including government, employers and consumers), payers
(health insurance companies) and providers discourages the shift to value-based care delivery. Providers would
advance value-based models if they could capture a larger percentage of the savings generated from more effective
care management and delivery. Those financial benefits today flow disproportionately to buyers and payers.
This disconnection of payment from value creation slows industry transformation. Ultimately, U.S. healthcare will not
change the way it delivers care until it changes the way it pays for care. Fortunately, payment models are evolving to
incentivize value-based care delivery.
As payment reform unfolds, however, operational challenges pose significant challenges to hospitals and health
systems. They must adopt value-oriented new business models even as they continue to receive FFS payments. New
and old models of care delivery clash.
COVID makes this transition even more formidable as many health systems now lack the operating stamina and balance sheet strength to make the financial, operational and cultural investments necessary to deliver better outcomes, lower costs and enhanced customer service.
MARKET-DRIVEN CONSOLIDATION AND TRANSFORMATION
Full-risk payment models, such as bundled payments for episodic care and capitation for population health, are the
catalyst to value-based care delivery. Transition to value-based care occurs more easily in competitive markets with many attributable lives, numerous provider options and the right mix of willing payers.
As increasing numbers of hospitals struggle financially, the larger and more profitable health systems are expanding their networks, capabilities and service lines through acquisitions. This will increase their leverage with commercial payers and give them more time to adapt to risk-based contracting and value-based care delivery.
COVID also will accelerate acquisition of physician practices. According to an April 2020 MGMA report, 97% of
physician practices have experienced a 55% decrease in revenue, forcing furloughs and layoffs15. It’s estimated the
sector could collectively lose as much as $15.1 billion in income by the end of September 2020.
Struggling health systems and physician groups that read the writing on the wall will pro-actively seek capital or strategic partners that offer greater scale and operating stability. Aggregators can be selective in their acquisitions,
seeking providers that fuel growth, expand contiguous market positions and don’t dilute balance sheets.
Adding to the sector’s operating pressure, private equity, venture investors and payers are pouring record levels of
funding into asset-light and virtual delivery companies that are eager to take on risk, lower prices by routing procedures
and capture volume from traditional providers. With the right incentives, market-driven reforms will reallocate resources to efficient companies that generate compelling value.
As this disruption continues to unfold, rural and marginal urban communities that lack robust market forces will experience more facility and practice closures. Without government support to mitigate this trend, access and care gaps that already riddle American healthcare will unfortunately increase.
WINNING AT VALUE
The average hospital generates around $11,000 per patient discharge. With ancillary services that can often add up to
more than $15,000 per average discharge. Success in a value-based system is predicated on reducing those discharges and associated costs by managing acute care utilization more effectively for distinct populations (i.e. attributed lives).
This changes the orientation of healthcare delivery toward appropriate and lower cost settings. It also places greater
emphasis on preventive, chronic and outpatient care as well as better patient engagement and care coordination.
Such a realignment of care delivery requires the following:
A tight primary care network (either owned or affiliated) to feed referrals and reduce overall costs through
better preventive care.
A gatekeeper or navigator function (increasingly technology-based) to manage / direct patients to the most
appropriate care settings and improve coordination, adherence and engagement.
A carefully designed post-acute care network (including nursing homes, rehab centers, home care
services and behavioral health services, either owned or sufficiently controlled) to manage the 70% of
total episode-of-care costs that can occur outside the hospital setting.
An IT infrastructure that can facilitate care coordination across all providers and settings.
Quality data and digital tools that enhance care, performance, payment and engagement.
Experience with managing risk-based contracts.
A flexible approach to care delivery that includes digital and telemedicine platforms as well as nontraditional sites of care.
Aligned or incentivized physicians.
Payer partners willing to share data and offload risk through upside and downside risk contracts.
Engaged consumers who act on their preferences and best interests.
While none of these strategies is new or controversial, assembling them into cohesive and scalable business models is something few health systems have accomplished. It requires appropriate market conditions, deep financial resources,
sophisticated business acumen, operational agility, broad stakeholder alignment, compelling vision, and robust
Providers that fail to embrace value-based care for their “attributed lives” risk losing market relevance. In their relentless pursuit of increasing treatment volumes and associated revenues, they will lose market share to organizations that
deliver consistent and high-value care outcomes.
CONCLUSION: THE CHARGING GRAY RHINO
America needs its hospitals to operate optimally in normal times, flex to manage surge capacity, sustain themselves
when demand falls, create adequate access and enhance overall quality while lowering total costs. That is a tall order requiring realignment, evolution, and a balance between market and policy reform measures.
The status quo likely wasn’t sustainable before COVID. The nation has invested heavily for many decades in acute and
specialty care services while underinvesting, on a relative basis, in primary and chronic care services. It has excess
capacity in some markets, and insufficient access in others.
COVID has exposed deep flaws in the activity-based payment as well as the nation’s underinvestment in public health.
Disadvantaged communities have suffered disproportionately. Meanwhile, the costs for delivering healthcare services
consume an ever-larger share of national GDP.
Transformational change is hard for incumbent organizations. Every industry, from computer and auto manufacturing to
retailing and airline transportation, confronts gray rhino challenges. Many companies fail to adapt despite clear signals
that long-term viability is under threat. Often, new, nimble competitors emerge and thrive because they avoid the inherent contradictions and service gaps embedded within legacy business models.
The healthcare industry has been actively engaged in value-driven care transformation for over ten years with little to
show for the reform effort. It is becoming clear that many hospitals and health systems lack the capacity to operate profitably in competitive, risk-based market environments.
This dismal reality is driving hospital market valuations and closures. In contrast, customers and capital are flowing to
new, alternative care providers, such as OneMedical, Oak Street Health and Village MD. Each of these upstart
companies now have valuations in the $ billions. The market rewards innovation that delivers value.
Unfortunately, pure market-driven reforms often neglect a significant and growing portion of America’s people. This gap has been more apparent as COVID exacts a disproportionate toll on communities challenged by higher population
density, higher unemployment, and fewer medical care options (including inferior primary and preventive care infrastructure).
Absent fundamental change in our hospitals and health systems, and investment in more efficient care delivery and
payment models, the nation’s post-COVID healthcare infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in many American communities, making them more vulnerable to chronic disease, pandemics and the vicissitudes of life.
Article 2 in our “Future of Hospitals” series will explore the public policy challenges of providing appropriate, affordable and accessible healthcare to all American communities.
We got an update from the chief medical information officer of one of our member systems about their ongoing progress in expanding telemedicine. Their rate of virtual visits peaked in late April, accounting for over half of all physician encounters. But like most systems, they’ve seen telemedicine visits drop to less than 20 percent of all appointments as physician offices have reopened.
In thinking about how the system will move telemedicine forward, she said, “We’re trying to be intentional and really design a top-notch consumer experience, with quality as the foundation.” They are going specialty-by-specialty, condition-by-condition, to redesign care pathways to optimally blend virtual and in-person care. It’s daunting, but she believes COVID-19 provided a model for how to do this quickly and effectively.
In just a few weeks, many systems stood up COVID management programs in the following way: algorithm-driven, online symptom triage triggers a virtual visit with a doctor. Testing is conducted at new, dedicated locations, to keep doctors’ offices as COVID-free as possible. Patients with concerning symptoms are monitored at home with pulse oximetry and regular check-ins; the same resources are used to ensure discharged patients are recovering well.
It’s the perfect example of how to design a safe, consumer-centered care pathway, using the whole of a health system’s resources. Now the challenge facing doctors and hospitals is: can this process be scaled across the hundreds of conditions that could benefit from a blend of virtual and traditional care?
As we enter a new decade, everyone is searching for something to truly change the game in healthcare over the next 10 years. To find that answer, an estimated 50,000 people headed to San Francisco this week for the prestigious J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. Every one of them is placing big bets on who will win and lose in the future of healthcare. The shortcut to figuring this out is actually a question — or 10 questions to be more precise. And what matters most is whether or not the right people are asking and answering those questions.
While the prophets are ever present and ever ready to pitch their promises in every corner of the city, the pragmatists head up to the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis Hotel to hear from the CEOs and CFOs of close to 30 of the largest and most prestigious providers of care in the country. Why? Remember, this is an investor conference and if you want to understand any market, the first rule is to follow the money. And if you want to understand the future business model of healthcare, you better listen closely to the health providers in that room and take notes.
What providers are saying matters to everyone in healthcare
Healthcare is the largest industry in our economy with over $4 trillion spent per year. Healthcare delivery systems and healthcare providers account for over $2 trillion of that spend, so that feels like a pretty good place to start, right? For that reason alone, it’s critical to listen closely to the executives in those organizations, as their decisions will affect the quality, access and cost of care more than any other stakeholder in healthcare.
Some will say that what they saw this year from healthcare providers was more of the same, but I encourage you to ignore that cynicism and look more closely. As the futurist William Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” The potential for any health system to drive major change is certainly there and the examples are everywhere. The biggest blocker is whether they are asking the right questions. One question can change everything. Here’s proof.
The stunning power of and need for good questions
Last year I titled my summary “The #1 Takeaway from the 2019 JP Morgan Conference – It’s the Platform, Stupid.”The overwhelming response to the article was pretty surprising to me— it really resonated with leaders. One example was Jeff Bolton, the chief administrative officer of Mayo Clinic, who told me that the article had inspired their team to ask a single question, “Does Mayo need to be a platform?” They answered the question “yes” and then took aggressive action to activate a strategy around it. Keep reading to learn about what they set in motion.
Soon after, I had a discussion with John Starcher, CEO of Cincinnati-based Bon Secours Mercy Health, one of the largest health systems in the country, who shared with me that he is taking his team off site for a few days to think about their future. It occurred to me that the most helpful thing for his team wouldn’t be a laundry list of ideas from the other 30 healthcare delivery systems that presented, but rather the questions that they asked at the board and executive level that drove their strategy. Any of those questions would have the potential to change the game for John’s team or any executive team. After all, if you’re going to change anything, the first thing you need to do is change is your mind.
The wisdom of the crowd
So, I set out to figure this out: If you were having a leadership or board retreat, what are the 10 questions you should be asking and answering that may change the future of your organization over the next 10 years? I didn’t have the answers, so I decided to tap into the wisdom of the crowd, listening to all 30 of the nonprofit provider presentations, spending additional time with a number of the presenters and reaching out to dozens of experts in the market to help define and refine a set of 10 questions that could spark the conversation that fires up an executive team to develop to the right strategy for their organization.
A special thank you to a number of the most respected leaders in healthcare who took their time to contribute to and help think through these questions:
Mike Allen, CFO of OSF Healthcare (Peoria, Ill.)
Jeff Bolton, CAO of Mayo Clinic (Rochester, Minn.)
Robin Damschroder, CFO of Henry Ford Health System (Detroit)
JP Gallagher, CEO of NorthShore University HealthSystem (Evanston, Ill.)
Kris Zimmer, CFO of SSM Health (St. Louis)
Wright Lassiter, CEO of Henry Ford Health System (Detroit)
Mary Lou Mastro, CEO of Edwards-Elmhurst Health (Warrenville, Ill.)
Dominic Nakis, CFO of Advocate Aurora Health (Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill.)
Dr. Janice Nevin, CEO of ChristianaCare (Newark, Del.)
Randy Oostra, CEO or ProMedica (Toledo, Ohio)
John Orsini, CFO of Northwestern Medicine (Chicago)
Lou Shapiro, CEO of Hospital for Special Surgery (New York City)
John Starcher, President & CEO, Bon Secours Mercy Health (Cincinnati)
Vinny Tammaro, CFO, Yale New Haven Health (New Haven, Conn.)
Bert Zimmerli, CFO of Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City)
Here are the top 10 questions from the 2020 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference
Based on the wisdom of the crowd including the 30 nonprofit provider presentations at the 2020 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, here are the Top 10 Questions that every CEO needs to answer that may make or break their next 10 years.
1. Business model: Will we think differently and truly leverage our “platform?” As referenced earlier in this article, this was the major theme from last year — health systems leveraging their current assets to build high-value offerings and new revenue streams on top of the infrastructure they have in place. Providers are pivoting from the traditional strategy of buying and building hospitals and simply providing care toward a new and more dynamic strategy that focuses on leveraging the platform they have in place to create more value and growth. Mayo Clinic is an organization that all health systems follow closely. Mayo adopted the platform model around their ‘digital assets’ into what they refer to as Mayo Clinic Platform, which initially targets three game-changing initiatives: a Home Hospital to deliver more health in the home even for high acuity patients, a Clinical Data Analytics Platform for research and development and an Advanced Diagnostics Platform focused on predictive analytics, using algorithms to capture subtle signals before a disease even develops. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one of the top pediatric hospitals in the world, is leveraging their platform to drive international volume, where revenue is 3.5x more per patient. They are also making investments in cell and gene therapy, where their spinoff of Spark Therapeutics returned hundreds of millions of dollars back to their organization. Both organizations were clear that any returns that they generate will be re-invested back into raising the bar on both access to care and quality of care.
2. Market share: Are we leveraging a “share of cup” strategy? Starbucks had dominant share in the market against Caribou Coffee, Peet’s Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts. Instead of solely focusing on how to grab a little more market share, they reframed the definition of their market. They called it “share of cup” meaning that anywhere and any time a cup of coffee was consumed, they wanted it to be Starbucks. In that definition of the market, they had very little share, but enormous growth potential. Hospital for Special Surgery in New York is the largest and highest volume orthopedic shop in the world. Their belief is that wherever and whenever a musculoskeletal issue occurs, they should be part of that conversation. This thinking has led them to build a robust referral network, which 33 percent of the time leads to no surgical treatment. So instead of fighting for share of market in New York, they have a very small share and a very big opportunity in a “share of cup” approach. NorthShore University Health System in Illinois has taken a similar approach on a regional level, converting one of their full-service hospitals into the first orthopedic and spine institute in the state. The results have exceeded expectations on every measure and they already have to increase their capacity due to even higher demand than they originally modeled.
3.Structure: Are we a holding company or an operating company? There has been a tremendous amount of consolidation over the last few years, but questions remain over the merits of those moves. The reality is that many of these organizations haven’t made the tough decisions and are essentially operating as a holding company. They are not getting any strategic or operational leverage. You can place all health systems on a continuum along these two endpoints — being a holding vs. an operating company — but the most critical step is to have an open conversation about where you’re at today, where you intend to be in the future, when you’re going to get there and how you’re going to make it happen. Bon Secours Mercy Health’s CEO John Starcher shared, “It makes sense to merge, but only if you’re willing to make the tough decisions.” His team hit the mark on every measure of their integration following their merger. They then leveraged that same competency to acquire the largest private provider of care in Ireland, as well as seven hospitals in South Carolina and Virginia. Northwestern Medicine has leveraged a similar approach to transform from a $1 billion hospital into a $5 billion health system in a handful of years. Both of these organizations prioritized and made tough decisions quickly and each has created an organizational competency in executing efficiently and effectively on mergers and acquisitions.
4. Culture: Do we have employees or a team? Every organization states that their employees are their most important asset, but few have truly engaged them as a team. Hospitals and healthcare delivery systems can become extraordinarily political, and it’s easy to see why. These are incredibly complex businesses with tens of thousands of employees in hundreds of locations and thousands of departments. Getting that type of organization to move in the same direction is incredibly challenging in any industry. At the same time, the upside of breaking through is perhaps the most important test of any leadership team. JP Gallagher, CEO of North Shore University Health System, shared his perspective that, “Healthcare is a team sport.” The tough question is whether or not your employees are truly working as a team. Christiana Care provides care in four states — Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They have taken a unique approach that they frame as “for the love of health,” incorporating the essence of what they do in every communication both internally and externally, in their values and in their marketing. In a multi-state system, it is tricky to create a caring and collaborative culture, but it’s critical and they’ve nailed it. Their CEO shared that, “If you lead with love, excellence will follow.” That’s not only well said but spot-on. Creating a world-class team requires not only loving what you do, but the team you’re part of.
5. Physicians: Are our physicians optimistic or pessimistic? There’s a lot of concern about “physician burnout” with a reflex to blame it on EHRs, cutting off the needed conversation to dive deeper into where it really comes from and how best to address it. The challenge over the next decade is to create an optimistic, engaged and collaborative culture with physicians. In reading this, some will react with skepticism, which is exactly why leadership here is so important. One suggestion I was given was to make this question edgier and ask, “Are our physicians with us or not?” However the question is asked, the bottom line is that leadership needs to find a way to turn this into a dynamic, hyper-engaged model. A little while back I spent the day with the leadership team at Cleveland Clinic. At the end of the day, their CEO Dr. Tom Mihaljevic was asked what he would tell someone who was thinking of going to medical school. He said he would tell them that, “This is absolutely the best time to be a doctor.” His answer was based on the fact that there has never been a time when you could do more to help people. He wasn’t ignoring the challenges, he was simply reframing those issues as important problems that smart people need to help solve in the future. Those who adopt that type of optimism and truly engage and partner with their physicians will create a major competitive advantage over the next decade.
6. Customer: Do we treat sick patients or care for consumers? Words matter here – patients vs. consumers. Most hospitals are in a B2B, not B2C, mindset. Patients get sick, they try to access care, they check into an ER, they get admitted, they are treated, they get discharged. People get confused, anxious and concerned, then they seek not only care, but simplicity, compassion and comfort. With half of America coming through their stores every week, Walmart is already the largest provider organization that no one thinks of as they provide ‘consumer’ care, not ‘patient’ care. But they are starting to broaden their lens, and health systems will need to make moves as well. Competing with Walmart, CVS and other consumer-centric models will require a different mindset. I think Dr. Janice Nevin, the CEO ChristianaCare, captured this really well when she said, “Our mindset is that our role is to ensure everything that can be digital will be digital. Everything than can be done in the home will be done in the home.” Henry Ford Health System CEO Wright Lassiter commented, “Trust is the fundamental currency in healthcare.” Building that trust will require a digital experience in the future that is just as compassionate and caring as what health systems strive to deliver in person in the past.
7. Data: Will we make data liquid? The most undervalued and misunderstood asset of health systems may be their data. While some at the conference refer to this as having the economic equivalent of being the “oil of healthcare,” the real and more practical question is whether or not your organization will make data liquid, available and accessible to the right players on your team at the right time. Jeff Bolton from Mayo commented that, “The current model is broken. Data and tech can eliminate fragmentation.” In a recent Strata survey, we asked leaders in health systems whether they had access to the information they needed to do their job, and 90 percent said no. For many health systems, data is a science project, hidden behind the scenes primarily used for research and impossible to access for most stakeholders. The call to action is activating that data to improve clinical outcomes, operations and/or financial performance.
8. Cost: Are we serious about reducing the cost of care and delivering value? Affordability is a hot topic, and for good reason, as high deductible plans, price transparency and other factors have accelerated its urgency. As Intermountain Healthcare CEO Dr. Marc Harrison shared, “We have an absolute responsibility to make healthcare affordable.” While the consumer side will be a moving target for some time, the No. 1 challenge for hospitals right now is to lower their cost structure so they can compete more effectively in the future. Advocate Aurora Health, Baylor Scott & White Health, CommonSpiritHealth and many others are targeting cost reductions of over $1 billion over the next few years. As most hospitals are now in a continuous process to reduce cost in order to compete more effectively in the future, organizations like Yale New Haven Health in Connecticut have implemented advanced cost accounting solutions to better understand both cost and margins. Yale is using this data to understand variation, supporting an initiative that drove over $150 million in savings. Additionally, they have combined cost data with clinical feeds from their EHR to understand the cost of harm events, which turn out to be 5x more expensive. As more providers take on risk, having a “source of truth” on the cost of care will be essential. Advocate Aurora Health CFO Dominic Nakis shared that, “We believe the market will continue to move to taking on risk.” Many of the presenting organizations shared that same perspective, but they won’t be able to manage that risk unless they understand the cost of care for every patient at every point of care across the continuum every day.
9. Capital: Do we have an “asset-light” strategy? Traditional strategy for health systems was defined primarily by what they built or bought. Many hospitals still maintain an “if you build it, they will come” strategy at the board level. Yet, Uber has become the biggest transportation company in the world without owning a single car and Airbnb has become the biggest hospitality company in the world without owning a single room. These models are important to reflect upon as healthcare delivery systems assess their capital investment strategy. Intermountain Healthcare CFO Bert Zimmerli refers to their overall thought process as an “asset-light expansion strategy.” In 2019, they opened a virtual hospital and they have now delivered over 700,000 virtual interactions. The number of virtual visits at Kaiser Permanente now exceeds the number of in-person visits at their facilities. With that said, there will be a balance. I really like how Robin Damschroder the CFO of Henry Ford Health System framed it: “We believe healthcare will be more like the airline and banking industry, both of which are fully digitally enabled but have a balance of ‘bricks and clicks’ with defined roles where you can seamlessly move between the two. Clearly, we have a lot of ‘bricks’ so building out the platform that integrates ‘clicks’ is essential.”
10. Performance: Do we want our team to build a budget or improve performance? The most significant barrier to driving change that many organizations have baked into their operating model is their budget process. The typical hospital spends close to five months creating a budget that is typically more than $100 million off the mark. After it’s presented to the board, it is typically thrown out within 90 days. It creates a culture of politics, entitlement and inertia. According to a Strata survey of 200 organizations, close to 40 percent are now ditching the traditional budget process in favor of a more dynamic approach, often referred to as Advanced Planning. OSF HealthCare leverages a rolling approach, radically simplifying and streamlining the planning process while holding their team accountable for driving improvement vs. hitting a budget. When it comes to driving performance, SSM Health CEO Laura Kaiser captured the underlying mindset that’s needed: “We have a strong bias toward purposeful action.” Well said, and it certainly applies to all of the questions here among the top 10.
5 additional questions to consider
As you would imagine or might suggest, the questions above can and in some cases should be replaced with others. Additional critical questions to answer that came from the group included the following:
Competition: Who else will we compete with in the future and are we positioned to win?
Digital health: Are we going to be a “digital health” company, providing tech-enabled services?
Affordability: How are we making care more affordable and easier to understand and access?
Social determinants: Is this a mission, marketing or operations strategy?
Leadership: Have we made the tough decisions we need to make, and will we in the future?
Start asking questions
The point here isn’t to get locked into a single list of questions, but rather to force your team to ask and answer the most important and challenging ones that will take you from where you are today to where you want to be in the future. After reviewing these questions with your team, the one additional question you need to consider is one of competency: Do you have the ability and bandwidth to execute on what you’ve targeted?In the end, that’s what matters most. While there are many interesting opportunities, too many teams end up chasing too much and delivering too little.
The next 10 years can and should be the best 10 years for every health system and every healthcare provider, but making it happen will require some really tough questions. “The current path we’re on will leave us with a healthcare delivery model that is completely unsustainable,” stated Randy Osstra, CEO of ProMedica Health System. “We need to take meaningful action toward creating a new model of health and well-being — one that supports healthy aging, addresses social determinants of health, encourages appropriate care in the lowest cost setting, and creates funding and incentives to force a truly integrated approach.”
Strong leaders are needed now more than ever. The rest of healthcare is watching, not just professionally but personally. We are all grateful to you for the extraordinary and often heroic care that you deliver without hesitation to our family and friends every day both in our communities and across our country. But now we all need you to not only deliver care, but a new and better version of healthcare. So, ask and answer these and other tough questions. We know you will do everything that you can to help make healthcare healthier for all of us over the next 10 years.