What does innovation really mean for the health care and benefits industry?

Steve Blumenfield, left, Director of Strategic Operations and Alliances for Willis Towers Watson’s Health and Benefits practice, talks innovation with Jonathan Edelheit, Principal & Founder, Global Healthcare Resources, at the 9th Annual Employer Health Care and Benefits Congress.

Earlier this month, I spoke at the 9th Annual Employer Health Care and Benefits Congress in Los Angeles as part of a panel called “The Big Three Talk Innovations in Self -Funding & Employer Plans.” I love to discuss and debate what true innovation means for the benefits industry. Part of my job as a consultant is to keep my ear to the ground on what’s trending, so what better way to do so than to get out and hear what others are saying.

Innovate with purpose

“Don’t just innovate, you’ve got to innovate with purpose.”

When it comes to innovation, my mantra is: “Don’t just innovate, you’ve got to innovate with purpose.” I say this to startup vendors, and to the employers who buy their solutions. Getting in front of audiences like those at EHBC gives me the chance to tell new solution providers, “Don’t approach me until you know your product works and you can prove it has a worthwhile outcome to the person using it – and the person paying for it.” It may sound a little harsh to the hopeful startup CEOs out there, but really, I’m doing them a favor.

At Willis Towers Watson we hear from hundreds of health and benefit startups each year. In many cases, startups have an idea, but limited insight into health care or benefits, yet they know their idea will work! Many operate in a consumer business model until a venture capital investor tells them to sell to employers … so that’s what they do, even though they’ve never met an HR professional. As a result, our clients need significant due diligence before they align with a start-up and innovate for the sake of innovating.

The consultant’s role in all this? We walk a fine line to identify innovations for our clients at the right stage: far enough along to be sure there’s value, but not too far down the pike that we’ve missed our opportunity to bring clients something exciting, new and occasionally game-changing. I like to give this example of the peril of adopting innovation too early: You can open a bottle of champagne really quickly with a chainsaw: This might be innovative, but I wouldn’t want to drink from it.

Bending the innovation curve

There are many ways to innovate and make a meaningful difference, and there’s never been a better time to see new companies trying to do just that. The best examples of companies that I believe have bent the innovation curve are those that turn traditional delivery models on their head. These include pre-diabetes solutions such as those offered by Omada Health, which treat at-risk individuals before they progress to disease; and startups such as Hinge Health, which delivers remote, sensor-based physical therapy and support for musculoskeletal injuries to reduce the risk of dependence on opioids and enable access to care. When self-insured employers are footing the bill for their employees’ health conditions, solutions like these create considerable value in controlling costs and improving health outcomes over the long haul.

With the help of thought-leaders, venture capitals, startup accelerators, clients and our many talented specialists and generalist consultants, I spend my time seeking solutions that make a difference. Going forward, I’d love to see additional paradigm shifts in high-impact areas such as specialty drug costs. That would be real innovation. I’m also on the watch for emerging solutions that can meet the patient where they are – even outside of a doctor’s office or network. How can we move care safely, beyond scheduled appointments and the office-based model, and redefine exactly what we mean by “care”?

Too much innovation?

“Our job as consultants is to get more people to not only engage with a solution, but derive impact and value.”

For benefits and HR leaders, 40-plus hours in a work week aren’t enough to process all the new offerings, let alone devise a plan, launch chosen solutions effectively and realize the results. So when I say, “Don’t talk to my clients until you’re ready,” I’m really just helping my clients make the most efficient use of their time, and asking new providers to have their solutions thoroughly baked before they pitch.

Yes, it’s great to innovate and we’re excited there’s so much innovation in the market; however, it eventually leads to offerings that look the same to the employer, despite how passionately the startup CEO believes their method for engagement, bell or whistle is truly unique. Our job as consultants is to get more people to not only engage with a solution, but derive impact and value.

It’s never been a more exciting time in health care and for the prospect of new solutions. Innovators play an enormous role in pushing the entire industry forward in a positive direction. We just need to be selective about the ones we incorporate, and stay away from the chainsaws.

About Steve Blumenfield

Steve Blumenfield is a Senior Consultant and Director of Strategic Opportunities and Alliances for Health and Benef…
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