Vanderbilt Speakers Embody New Wave of Health Care Innovation

(Click to see more pictures from the 2013 Vanderbilt Health Care Conference)

Beyond the political noise surrounding health care reform, a quiet revolution is taking place within the industry that is poised to reshape the entire system of how care is delivered and how providers get paid.

Last month, I had the privilege of participating in the Vanderbilt Health Care Conference — a student-organized and run program that is rapidly becoming a signature event for Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

This year’s keynote speakers, Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle, Founder and CEO of Iora Health, and Nina Nashif, founder and CEO of Healthbox, both embody a new wave of innovation that’s coming to a traditionally risk averse health care system.

I met Rushika a year ago at one of his clinics and quickly recognized his vision as an important wind of change. Iora Health, based in Cambridge, MA, runs primary care clinics, usually for large numbers of front-line employees, pairing patients with a health coach who is available to help with disease management or simply to answer medical questions. The spaces are also meant to be inviting, something like a Starbucks where employees would want to visit and perhaps pick up a healthy snack or even get a flu shot. In perhaps its most radical move, Iora has developed its own IT system, allowing patients to view (and comment upon) their own medical records.

The idea behind Iora is to invest more in primary care to help patients better manage their health and ultimately to reduce costs from things like expensive Emergency Department visits or unnecessary medications and procedures. Health coaches and doctors will do whatever it takes to help patients make behavioral changes and take better care of their health. For example, coaches grocery shop with patients to help them make better choices and eat healthier. For patients wishing to improve fitness, coaches check in with them via email or Facebook to see what kind of exercise they are doing.

Rushika relayed the story of coach who noticed her patient had trouble caring for her toe nails and decided the best way to ensure the patient would attend weekly coaching sessions was to buy her favorite nail colors and paint them for her. Another coach realized that panic attacks were preventing a diabetic patient from regular dialysis treatments. Knowing the patient was a music lover and that it had a calming effect, the coach bought the patient an iPod and loaded it with his favorite music to help him get through the dialysis sessions. In another case, better coordination across a complex healthcare system helped a patient on 27 medications, seeing different 7 doctors, rationalize the different treatments saving many thousand dollars in the current fee-for-services system. Rushika argues that incremental improvement is not the answer, real innovation is. “It’s the difference between the Wright brothers building a plane to fly over water versus putting wings on a ship.”

While Iora Health is focusing on a specific — and vitally important — piece of health care, Chicago-based Healthbox (now with a partnership at Nashville’s Entrepreneur Center) hopes to bring some startup ingenuity to the industry. Promising early stage companies in the health care field apply for a four-month program in which they have access to business mentors, tech talent, investors, and startup peers. They also receive a $50,000 seed investment if they’re accepted into the program.

It’s still early for health care startups, but Nina told the crowd that it’s clear the investment community thinks the changes happening in health care mark a huge business opportunity. If it’s any indication, the number of health care accelerators has grown from Healthbox, which was the first to launch, to 18 today.

So how does a new class of innovators bring change to perhaps one of the most antiquated businesses in existence today? Nina suggests three things that are needed for this to happen:

  1. Startups need to “co-create” solutions alongside established health care enterprises, that is existing hospitals, biotech companies, insurance providers, and so forth.
  2. Startups can help change the DNA in legacy organizations, helping them learn to be more open to new things.
  3. Startups need to start taking small bets in a search for high rewards.

In addition to Rushika and Nina, the conference included panels on big data, exchanges, and provider/payer models with executives from across the country and some of Nashville’s premier health care companies. And the Nashville Health Care Council (once again) proved invaluable to help bring together our students with those working in the industry.

My hope is that this annual conference continues to grow into a must-attend event for management students across the country, the vibrant Nashville health care community, and the city as a whole. Frankly, I think we’re well on our way to getting there.

(This piece originally appeared in The Tennessean on Nov. 9, 2013.)

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