A recap of the Boston Business Journal Future of Healthcare Event on April 7th

Spring was proud to sponsor the Boston Business Journal’s breakfast event earlier this month. The title, “The Future of Healthcare,” is a critical point of discussion for our team and our clients day in and day out, and carries more weight now since the pandemic highlighted critical system gaps. Our consultants continuously look for innovative solutions that help organizations mitigate the impacts of rising healthcare costs, attract and retain employees, address behavioral health, and ultimately frame insurance and employee benefits in a more strategic way. Our work closely aligns with the market and what is trending with key players, such as insurance carriers, healthcare providers, technology vendors, and more. As such, we were delighted to get the inside scoop directly from industry partners.Future of Healthcare

The in-person (refreshing!) event provided much food for thought and called upon the sentiments of a range of stakeholders. Michael Dandorph, President and CEO at Tufts Medicine, provided the healthcare provider viewpoint. Andrew Dreyfus, President and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBSMA), an industry veteran, brought the health plan perspective to the table. And Ali Hyatt, General Manager of Provider Commercialization and Marketing at Amwell, a telemedicine company, rounded out the discussion.

While the panelists all brought different points of view, there was a clear consensus as to what areas of healthcare need the most attention, and where the industry should focus in order to shape a more positive “Future of Healthcare.” A common thread was the need to view healthcare through the lens of the consumer (the patient) and find ways to improve that experience. We repeatedly heard the word transformation, meaning we all need to reframe our thinking and our approach to address the following key areas:

  1. Affordability

It’s no surprise that affordability was front and center, as healthcare costs continue to climb. As Dreyfus pointed out, the problem only got worse when COVID-19 necessitated paying higher salaries to staff, and caused premiums to increase. The rise of high-cost specialty drugs, which now represent around 25% of healthcare spending, and the consolidation of healthcare systems add even more fuel to the fire. As a result, employers are increasingly shifting more of the health plan costs to their employees, creating real barriers to care. Dreyfus cited a survey that found that in Massachusetts, half of the public has delayed or avoided necessary care due to costs. And as Hyatt pointed out, access is the most important driver of affordability. It is lack of access that tends to escalate prices for all parties within the healthcare system.

But enough about the problem; we all know it’s grim. When it comes to solutions, the panelists had ideas. Amwell is focused on making things like follow-up treatment, appointment making and care regimens easier to build an infrastructure that yields better outcomes. Tufts Medicine is working to build trust with consumers to help them better manage their health proactively, so that perhaps the patient never has to come to the hospital at all. Dreyfus emphasized the need to move away from the current fee-for-service system, where physicians earn less if they can keep a patient out of the hospital, which is backwards. “We should be paying for health and outcomes,” stated Dreyfus. High costs in a pandemic-stricken environment have pushed people away from engaging with healthcare systems and added to stress, leading to increased issues surrounding…

  1. Mental Health

The speakers came at mental health from multiple angles. There is the obvious problem, which is that COVID-19 took immeasurable tolls on mental health. For as much good that technology has done regarding the flexibility to “work-from-anywhere,” it has also been detrimental. Dandorph pointed out that remote work for many just means logging on earlier and signing off later, with almost no down time. Hyatt added that a recent Microsoft study showed that employees were pulling an additional “third shift” from 9-10PM, feeling the need to log back in at night after tending to family or other obligations. Beyond work pressures, we also have retirees and seniors to consider, who have been isolated, vulnerable and afraid since the onset of the pandemic, and have been exhibiting increasing signs of depression and/or dementia as they struggle with loneliness.

Then there is the more specific problem, which is burnout within the healthcare industry. Dandorph dubbed this the “pandemic before the pandemic,” with suicide rates among physicians more than double that of the general population. COVID-19 amplified things, and staff has been retreating ever since, adding to the labor shortage we are seeing across all sectors. To solve for this crisis, the panelists stressed the need to simplify processes to relieve the burden on healthcare professionals. They are looking at ways to eliminate clinicians spending hours on the phone for pre-authorization processes, or typing up notes, and ultimately remove steps when possible. By integrating automation technologies and digitizing routine tasks, not only will staff get back time, but administrative costs should also go down.

The good news is the stigma around mental health has fallen – maybe not completely, but significantly. For their part, BCBSMA has dramatically expanded their staff in this area, adding around 17,000 social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and others. In some cases, the health plan is paying mental health practitioners more to bring them back into insurance networks, as they are often separate due to administrative burden. BSBCMA has also committed to pay at parity for mental health visits indefinitely.Employee Burnout

The panelists agreed that all the touchpoints of healthcare are inter-related; you can’t have a strong system if one cog in the wheel is poor. Specifically, the mental health component can be helped in part by…

  1. Digitization

Telehealth was a hot topic at the Boston Business Journal event. While it was even higher during the height of the pandemic, Tufts Medicine is still seeing about 80% of behavioral health visits and  15%-20% of all healthcare visits in a virtual format.

In summary, there’s no going backwards. Telehealth is here to stay, and Hyatt told a memorable story highlighting its value beyond mere convenience. She described a patient treated by Amwell who, at the time did not have a primary care physician (PCP) and was struggling with bronchitis systems. He was a smoker, mid-50’s, with various health issues such as emphysema and high blood pressure. He remembered he had access to Amwell and through his virtual visit, the clinician was able to discern that his nebulizer tubing was cracked, that he was not taking his blood pressure medication, and that his wife’s cuff he had been using wasn’t the right fit. After the visit these problems were resolved and he was enrolled in a care management program through the insurer from which he receives nutrition tips, reminders about appointments, and more. As Hyatt put it, “This was a consumer who would have gotten lost in the system.” Dreyfus agreed that seeing patients in their home environment can be extremely valuable, as the clinician can do things like look into their fridge to get a gauge of their diet, look into their medicine cabinet to understand drug-to-drug interactions, or flag things like rugs that could cause a fall.

Telehealth does not work for every medical issue, and some still prefer in-person care. Importantly, Dreyfus flagged up that someone seeking mental health services, for example, may not be comfortable doing so in their home, which could be the source of their stress. But as Hyatt pointed out, we shouldn’t be viewing it as telehealth versus in-person care, but how it all works together. The panelists think of telehealth as the beginning of a series of services that are more focused on the patient experience with the goal of increasing…

  1. Consumer Engagement

As Dandorph explained, a virtual healthcare visit is one aspect of where the future of healthcare is going, but we need to think about digital more broadly. He pointed out that in the tech industry for example, they have figured out how to engage consumers and be a regular part of their lives without being intrusive. Healthcare isn’t there yet. But if we can engage patients with their health early and often, and make their care needs and system navigation easier to understand, the result will be better outcomes and lower costs across the board. Dandorph introduced the concept of food as medicine and suggested partnerships that could enable all types of populations to eat healthier.

There are myriad ways to achieve such engagement, and one of them pitched by Dreyfus is to make the home the new locus of care. We were able to figure out at-home COVID-19 tests, so why stop there? Are there other tests or treatments that could be out-of-the-box? With the appropriate clinical support, better outcomes may be more likely in a home environment, and could be more comfortable for the patient and convenient for unpaid caretakers. This is especially true for elders, where the panelists agreed that long-term care needs to be a big piece of this puzzle as we move forward.

To bridge the consumer engagement gap, Tufts Medicine is thinking differently regarding hiring and leadership. Dandorph and his team brought in leaders from outside the healthcare realm, more familiar with consumer markets, who could think differently about making those connections and building brand recognition. Hyatt echoed this sentiment. At Amwell, they prioritize having a mix of staff; a balance of those from healthcare who understand the realities and the regulatory environment, and those from outside the industry who can bring fresh ideas and rethink the consumer experience. Hyatt noted that the biggest issue at a health system in New York was around payment and billing, where patients were frustrated with the complexity. We again get back to simplicity.

While all of these innovations are fantastic, we need to remember that they are not all equally accessible, which brings us to…

  1. Inequity

Like mental health, health inequity was another issue unmasked by COVID-19. There is still a digital divide, where technology solutions may not be accessible for some. There are social determinants of health to consider, Dandorph noted, such as food access, safe housing, economics, and education. When we talk about Food as Medicine, as an example, it may not be simple for everyone due to costs or inconvenience. And as Dreyfus pointed out, we are still dealing with underlying racism in care. So, what can we do about it?

recently collected all their member data – race, ethnicity, and other measures – and published it in a transparent way, highlighting where they stand now and where they need to improve equity efforts. They also developed similar reports for healthcare systems and vendors in the region. Then, they committed to using their value-based care programs to eliminate the inequities they found. The health plan made a $25 million grant to the Institute of Healthcare in Improvement in Boston. And starting in 2023 they will be the first plan in the country to pay hospitals more for achieving equity goals, as they have in the past to improve quality of care. Tufts Medicine is focused on developing more culturally competent services, as a start, but Dandorph stressed that health inequity is a societal problem that will require stronger…Improving Healthcare Partnerships

  1. Partnership

Yes, the healthcare system in the U.S. is broken in some ways. But it isn’t just up to hospitals and carriers to fix it. The panelists emphasized that things work better when silos are broken down, admitting even their organizations could work in closer collaboration, as they are aligned on priorities and direction. Dandorph explained the need for more partnership between the private and public sectors. For example, federal regulation is needed in the realm of high cost prescription drugs. Further, the government funds 40% of all healthcare in the U.S. through either Medicare or Medicaid, and many of its members are the ones suffering most from problems related to inequity and mental health. “These are macro societal issues,” said Dandorph, and as a society we need to elevate the economic status of those vulnerable communities and work on building trust between the people and the companies who can help them. This will take more work than any of the panelists’ organizations can do

alone. It will require community leaders. It will require businesses and employers to be more involved. Just like patients need help connecting the dots of their care, we need to connect the dots between each other.

Ultimately, the first 5 focus areas can be solved for only if #6 plays a larger role. Many of the objectives discussed – shifting from a sickcare system to a healthcare system, lowering costs, minimizing complexity, eliminating disparities, driving engagement in healthy behaviors – can only be accomplished through greater and widespread collaboration and connectivity.

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Teri Weber

Teri Weber

Partner at Spring Consulting Group, LLC
Teri Weber, ACI is a Senior Vice President with Spring Consulting Group. She has over 10 years of experience in health and welfare plan strategy, design, pricing, and implementation. She also works with absence management programs, including disability, family medical leave and leave of absence tracking. Her areas of expertise have allowed her to work with diverse employers and vendors to streamline processes and programs to meet the needs of insurers, administrators, employers and employees. Teri is on the Board for the New England Employee Benefits Council (NEEBC) and recently served as lead editor for the Disability Management Employer Coalition’s (DMEC) Return to Work Program Manual. Prior to joining Spring, Teri worked with Watson Wyatt, Buck Consultants and AON Consulting. In addition she was an Account Manager with Health Direct, Inc. Teri earned a BS at the University of Connecticut and a MBA at the University of Massachusetts. She holds an ACI designation and is a licensed broker in the states of MA and CT.