Government Healthcare

How Technology Can Transform Our Healthcare Labyrinth

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Illustration by Oliver Munday

In 2012, more than 95 million passengers passed through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest in the world. On a clear day, 120 airplanes fly in and out every hour. The airport handled 930,000 take offs and landings in 2012. Can you imagine if each airline, pilot and airport department had its own unique communication platform? The system simply couldn’t function and we as consumers wouldn’t tolerate the chaos and risk to safety.

But that’s not very different from how our supposedly modern U.S. health care system operates. Why has our rat-maze approach to coordinating care continued largely unchanged for more than 60 years? For all but the simplest of healthcare needs, we all find ourselves at some point trying to navigate a maze of health care facilities, doctors, pharmacies, insurance companies, and government programs, with all the associated conversations, paperwork, forms, bills, and files they all require.

According to the Institute of Medicine, the U.S. healthcare system wastes more than $765 billion each year—about 30 percent of our healthcare spending. If we eliminated this waste, over 10 years we could reduce nearly 50 percent of our national debt. The waste is that bad. It’s a huge handicap not only for the lives of every American, but for our overall economy.

What it will take to transform the system

But there’s good news. We can tackle this stunning waste in healthcare by implementing technology solutions to reduce inefficiencies, redundancies, and administrative costs. As part of an integrated model, technology can transform healthcare. If we get this right, we can create a system that keeps costs flat even as we dramatically improve the health and wellness of the American people. We can also break down the walls that make up the labyrinth we call the U.S. healthcare system.

I’ve seen the healthcare system from every possible angle—I was an EMT early in my career, a patient after breaking my neck in a skiing accident, an advocate for my son who survived a rare and deadly form of cancer, and I am a healthcare executive. These experiences have taught me that we need to move from a medical system designed around isolated health events to an integrated healthcare system that is focused on patient-centered care over the course of a lifetime. My focus and passion—both short- and long-term—is doing everything I can to help transform the system. Aetna has been working on aligning economic incentives between payers and providers, creating a simpler, more transparent consumer experience, and advancing technologies that seamlessly connect our healthcare system. This work also includes the many conversations I have on and off stage at venues like Techonomy and the World Economic Forum, where we are making the connections that will lead to a more convenient, user-oriented healthcare experience.

Bertolini SidebarMake no mistake, though. Consumers have to take the driver’s seat for this transformation, even as companies like Aetna and others help drive meaningful change. Years ago, most people simply followed their doctor’s orders even if it meant repeating tests or agreeing to treatments they hardly understood. Now people are playing a much more active role in their own care, partly because they have access to so much more information via the web. This information has fueled patient empowerment, making most of us a lot less passive about accepting “the doctor’s orders” at face value. Yet an even greater driver of change is on the horizon: money. As more people have more of their own money at stake, I guarantee we will see greater demand for efficiency, lower costs, and better results.

How does this translate to the exam room? Imagine someone has a chronic condition that requires treatment from different kinds of doctors. People are starting to ask if their doctors are sharing information and question why they have to fill out reams of paperwork at every doctor’s office. What happens when one doctor contradicts what another one said? Does everyone know what the others are prescribing? Why can’t the results of one test be shared seamlessly across a health team since we sign a paper every time that says it’s ok to share it with designated doctors? Why are we running around repeating tests because no one is talking to each other? Healthcare may be the only place left in our lives where we tolerate such inefficiency.

Coming Soon: A Technology-Fueled Consumer-Driven Health System

Finally, technology is beginning to accelerate a radical transformation. From motion-sensitive wristbands that track steps and sleep patterns to apps that allow you to schedule a flu shot at a walk-in clinic, the integrated digital experience is arriving. Consumers are responding to the availability of convenience and control that allows them to manage their personal healthcare. Over time, we believe that consumers, actively involved in managing their own health, will lead to healthier communities, a healthier nation, and even a healthier world.

Mark Bertolini is chairman and CEO of Aetna. Earlier, he worked at Cigna, NYLCare Health Plans, and SelectCare. He serves on the board of The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, for children with cancer and serious illnesses.

This article originally appeared in the Techonomy 2014 Report.

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2 Responses to “How Technology Can Transform Our Healthcare Labyrinth”

  1. Meredith Salisbury says:

    Love this article. In the US it’s widely accepted that insurance companies don’t have as much of an incentive to fix this problem since people switch insurance providers so often — any benefit they build isn’t realized in the short time an individual is their customer. So how do you get past that to build the business case for this much-needed revolution?

  2. disqus_2TsWFUOQ8J says:

    It is better for a health insurance company to become proactive than not. It would also be great if a health insurance company, which wields power, to educate consumers. If we don’t have health basics, all the technology in the world will only glaze over mistakes we are making because we never learned.

    That means the benefits of plant-based nutrition, daily exercise, daily rest, daily love/friendship, daily creativity/knowledge gathering and daily relaxation/meditation must be mentioned.

    If we count calories, do we know from what category of food we’re getting those categories? If we count steps, do we know whether our back is in alignment with our heels? If we count success, do we have a happiness counter?

    These and many more health factors matter. If any advocate for good health is motivated by profit, the advocate might leave out some of these basics. Why? THERE’S NO SYSTEM OF CHECKS AND BALANCES IN HEALTH CARE. Why should we have one if health care is private? Because people die when they don’t have to.

    Ex-CEOs of Monsanto are FDA officers; ex-government officials work for Big Pharma. Ex-CEOs of the meat and dairy industry regulate food. And any company that stands to profit from any health technology might (and I’m not saying profit is bad – it’s good) have its eyes blinded by profit margin.

    If you were head of the meat industry, would you tell the people that the quality of meat that most people can afford clogs arteries and brings on chronic sickness? If you were in charge of the milk industry, would you tell people that sometimes cows are tortured and they live 1/5 their life span to provide unhealthy food for us?

    Finally, there’s no checks and balances for profit and ethics. How flawed is that? Better to be sitting and doing nothing than to be smoking crack. Or is it?

    Thank you to everyone who puts quality of life before profit. Thank you for everyone who helps, from CEOs to homeless.

    My best,

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