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What can healthcare learn from cable? A closer look at the Comcast – Independence joint venture

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From L to R: Gary Zimmer and Shaye Mandle

When the news broke earlier this year that cable, telecommunications and entertainment conglomerate Comcast was entering the healthcare industry through a partnership with Philadelphia-based insurer Independence Health Group initial details were scant.

While the cable company has won plaudits for its innovative approach to employee healthcare, this venture was a novel effort to launch a digital health company focused on creating a consumer-oriented platform offering educational content and telemedicine services.

A fireside chat at MedCity INVEST Twin Cities event between Medical Alley Association CEO and President Shaye Mandle and Gary Zimmer, chief medical advisor for Comcast Digital Health and general manager of the two companies’ joint venture, 1819 LLC,  shed some light on what the hope is for the partnership’s potential.

Zimmer, a seasoned healthcare executive and emergency medicine physician was brought on take over management of 1819 LLC, which officially launched in April.

“The fact that I’m sitting here saying I’m working for Comcast is as bizarre to me as it probably sounds to all of you,” he joked.

While Zimmer pointed to some similarities aligning Comcast and Independence as large self-funded regional employers, he said that the underlying idea of the joint venture was to create new healthcare service channels that could quickly scale up through their existing distribution methods.

“So all of the things that are generally the nonstarters, that most startups would have to say there’s no possible way to enter this particular space. That’s where we want to go,” Zimmer said.

“We started earlier this year on our first platform release. It’s not particularity ambitious, by design. Where it’s ambitious is that it will be scalable from day one, it will be robust in the way most startups could never afford to do and it will have the foundation on which we’re going to be able to bring the solutions from the marketplace.”

Which is not to say that outside pressures didn’t drive the partnership. Zimmer said 1819 was partially born out of a desire from Independence Health Group to “reinvent” itself and build on its plan presence and relationships with providers.

According to Zimmer, the health insurance market has become a commodity and health plans are looking for diversified business lines to survive and differentiate themselves from competitors.

Zimmer nodded to the cable industry’s digital disruption as a possible harbinger of what could happen to healthcare, but added that both transformation pathways are still in the early innings.

“Ultimately I think that end point that will match what has happened in the cable business is when we see a slight shift in the balance of power of where that center of data is and who owns it,” he said, referring to people getting individual control of their own health and claims data.

From Comcast’s perspective, the company’s 20 million installed units represents an untapped healthcare delivery vehicle, especially as the company looks for new ways to engage customers in an era of cord-cutting.

“All the cable companies realize they’re being threatened like the health insurance companies are,” Zimmer said. “It’s led to a number of different initiatives and a real engine for startups to look at new models to leverage the fact that in the future Comcast will remain a dominant player in connecting the home to the outside world.”

Those new models can also pull in the production and entertainment arm of Comcast, which owns properties like NBC Universal to create even wider reach for healthcare initiatives.

Zimmer said his company has already built out a sophisticated content management system to be able to scale up their content library quickly and aggregate from multiple sources. He also hinted that the content would come from merging Comcast’s production capabilities with expertise from health systems, physicians and other healthcare stakeholders.

The shift within the entertainment and broadcasting industry towards access, availability and services on-demand, offers another potential learning for healthcare, according to Zimmer.

Those features are difficult – if not impossible – to build into existing brick and mortar healthcare providers, but provides an opening for a company like 1819 LLC to connect stakeholders and meet that demand.

“I can imagine a world where health is pervasive in what you do, so that there’s messaging from the entertainment world that matches the initiative of the month … So that when Al Roker makes a comment on the Today Show its messaging that linked into the positive health images and can direct you to appropriate resources,” Zimmer said.

“In order for this to work is that that has to be based on a relationship of absolute trust, that it’s not to better somebody’s pocket or shareholder interests.”

The ultimate idea is to use that foundation of digital health navigation to allow the development of innovative ideas like new health plan designs and in-room hospital experiences.

Other major areas of focus for the joint venture include the aging in place market, which has seen the influx of large retail players like Best Buy through its $800 million acquisition of senior monitoring company GreatCall.

“The market is so big and the demand is so wide that we believe our ability to serve as an open platform to aggregate solutions that are an entry point into a broader solution set is the right answer,” Zimmer said. “Our position is that we’re going to work with anyone who’s being innovative because we want to bring all of those solutions together and bring it to the maximum number of people possible.”

Picture: Kevin Truong, MedCity News

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