The Virtual Care Insider

Healthcare Disruption + Competition Part 1: The New Wild West

in Industry

Jon Pearce

Jon Pearce
CEO
January 8, 2019

A covered wagon train forms a protective circle to camp along the Oregon Trail in eastern Oregon.

What comes to mind when you think about the Wild West? Clint Eastwood swaggering through swinging saloon doors? Stagecoach heists and train robberies? Whatever you learned about pioneer life playing The Oregon Trail in elementary school?

These are all intrinsically linked with the Wild West’s zeitgeist, but I see it a bit differently. Discarding the concept of manifest destiny, this was THE era of unbridled American opportunity. Homesteading pioneers, ranchers, and gold-rushers—the entrepreneurs of the mid-1800s—all flocked to the American West with dreams of making their fortunes. And many succeeded.

Virtual Care’s Wild West

Virtual care is the digital frontier. Smartphones are our stagecoaches. Cloud-based services are our picks and axes; reliable in their errand but indifferent to the outcome. Sleek apps and user interfaces are the 6-shooters brought into battle. True, no one is dying of dysentery (hopefully) on their virtual care journey. But, the gunfights at high noon are just as real (if not as bloody). The early prospectors must always watch their backs or have the smell of another, sexier app, be their last.   

Analogies aside, an article in the December issue of Health Affairs paints a wild-west landscape clearly – from innovation, to competition, to opportunity. It got me thinking about how this retailization of telemedicine is changing the face of healthcare—and how this disruptive shift in competition is likely to impact health systems.

Cowboys riding horses with a shadow cast upon them.

Go West, Well, Everyone!

The other day, I read an article in Vox about how CrossFit is “amassing an army of doctors to disrupt healthcare.” Seriously. CrossFit. And that is just the latest in established players outside the healthcare space looking for ways to upend healthcare delivery. Amazon, Apple and Google have all thrown their hats into the healthcare ring.

Earlier this year, Amazon announced a healthcare focused partnership with JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway aimed at streamlining care for their self-insured populations. Apple increasingly offers health tracking functionality in their wearable and personal technology products and has been hiring doctors—as many as 50 over the past few years, according to CNBC. And Google’s parent company Alphabet recently moved to combine its DeepMind AI and healthcare businesses. Even social media platform Facebook made waves this spring with its foray into healthcare with its heavy handed, but certainly interesting exploration of how they could link social health determinants to actual patient health records.

These industry outsiders aren’t the only ones making waves in healthcare. Closer to home for health systems, retail clinics and pharmacies are working to grab a bigger piece of consumers’ healthcare spending. Retailers like CVS and Walgreens were early to jump on the retail clinic bandwagon, and are branching into other convenient care avenues, including telemedicine and virtual care.

For example, this summer, Walgreens launched a digital health service geared toward patients that connects them with direct-to-consumer telemedicine companies and a few regionally select provider organizations. And just the other day, I read an article in Becker’s about how they’re partnering with Verily – Alphabet’s life sciences subsidiary.  Likewise, CVS’ Minute Clinic now offers video visits through the CVS app – a service that connects exclusively with their telemedicine vendor, and Walmart launched a telemedicine initiative just this past October.

The Healthcare Disruption Gold Rush

These organizations are moving quickly to grab a piece of the action in healthcare for one specific reason: there is opportunity here. Healthcare in the U.S. is a $3 trillion (and growing) industry, and one that hasn’t yet reaped the benefits of the digital revolution. That means the race is still open to become the Amazon of healthcare – in fact, if you read the last section, you know Amazon is interested in becoming just that.

It may sound daunting, but it’s also exhilarating. The prairies of perverse economics are wide and hostile; the mountains of data silos foreboding. And technology giants, retail pharmacies, and non-traditional care delivery systems are all crowding the dusty trails of the true pioneers.  Next up, I’ll give you my two cents on how health systems can evolve to maintain their primacy – and win in the new Wild West.

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