Can healthcare be fixed?

Three years ago the chief executives of Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway announced they had set out to jump the monumental hurdle of ‘disrupting healthcare’ by launching Haven, an initiative to cut healthcare costs and improve access to healthcare for their employees. Hopes rested on the project ultimately serving as a model for innovative healthcare reform in the private sector.

This month Haven, now established as a nonprofit with 57 employees in the Boston area, announced it would shut its doors in February, having disrupted very little in the $4 trillion healthcare industry in its three-year tenure.

If three titans of industry could not drive innovation in our healthcare system, can anyone? Some in the healthcare industry are asking if Haven’s failure is a harbinger of failure for those who seek to find and cultivate innovative solutions in healthcare. As someone deeply entrenched in the race to find healthcare solutions, I believe Haven’s failure to jump this hurdle reflects the limitations of the jumper, rather than the insurmountable nature of the hurdle itself.

As the corporate development director at Healthworx, CareFirst’s innovation and investment arm, I am intimately familiar with the complex challenges our healthcare system faces. These challenges are by no means small or insignificant. But I believe Haven, a three-sided consortium of varying interests in diverse industries left little room for Haven to innovate.

The project was hampered at its inception particularly because one party, Amazon, had already advanced its own forays into primary-care and pharmacy solutions. While these programs may have preliminarily shown promise in meeting Amazon’s needs, these solutions produced vastly different outcomes in different corporate environments, resulting in disagreements over the endeavor’s fundamental direction forward. Those of us observing in the healthcare arena witnessed Haven’s efforts to squeeze Amazon’s piloted solutions into other companies’ plans – and meet considerable resistance. 

There are lessons to be learned from this experiment. The first is that unilaterally eliminating customization, an idea that seems so appealing because it immediately cuts costs, does not produce an easy, uncomplicated solution in practice. 

Innovation must be led by consumer demand, which varies widely. Unsurprisingly, employers want tailored solutions and plans for their employees, and employees want as much autonomy as possible in their healthcare decisions. The right balance of quality and customization differs across company size, outlook, industry and, especially, by region. 

My work has offered me a glimpse into possible future trajectories for healthcare solutions. From this vantage point we can already see that partnerships and collaborations with traditional and non-traditional companies will be critical to improving our nation’s healthcare and delivering on our goals of affordability and improved outcomes. 

Regional coalitions have been forming, and seeing success, using volume to leverage contracts and pricing structures that fit their needs. We have seen how partner selection and alignment with clear objectives upfront factor into the success of those partnerships, and, in Haven’s situation, how these factors can hamper progress when they are misaligned. 

Although the healthcare industry is facing its most challenging test yet with the coronavirus pandemic, innovation in healthcare is an achievable goal in the foreseeable future. I see workable, innovative ideas that challenge the status quo every day, and am in the fortunate position to help move these ideas to fruition. 

By lighting a fire under all the major players in healthcare, Haven may have spurred innovation after all, just not in the way its founders anticipated. Haven will be remembered for the splash it created when it entered the pool. The endeavor pushed traditional healthcare stakeholders to act and spurred increased investment in new models. It never found the magic pill to cure healthcare’s ailment, but it did help clarify the futility of the magic-pill fantasy and sparked an industry-wide call to action.