Blog | Hugh Kennedy 07.21.20

Will American Healthcare Really Change This Time?

Authors: Hugh Kennedy, EVP, Planning and Robert Davis, EVP, Strategy


Healthcare brands that tap into disenfranchised consumers might just help to shape the new landscape.

As part of a recent pitch presentation, a client asked our agency to pull together our thoughts on the dynamics driving the new healthcare landscape. You can see it above.

Working in an agency with a lengthy history in healthcare and life sciences, this kind of request generates mixed emotions. You really long for it all to come true, but you can't help but remember the sweeping visions for healthcare you've believed in in the past. It’s not unlike those six or seven years during the 1990s and early 2000s that CES insisted, over and over again, that ‘This is the year of the networked home!’ That took until 2018, give or take.

Medicine, which seems to revel in its self-proclaimed distinction as the most complex industry in the world, moves glacially by comparison – so it’s always easy to make grand, sweeping gestures about what the next vision for the new healthcare landscape might hold.

A vision for healthcare that’s (partially) coming true

A few trends we identified are coming to fruition, at least in part: less reactive care, more preventative outreach, and greater flexibility for different patient types. On the last point, Massachusetts has made tremendous strides with mental health patients, in some practices moving to what are called ‘reverse integrated care’ visits in which the patient gets primary care in the behavioral health setting versus the PCP’s office.

The sixth trend in our landscape graphic was the one that gave us the most pause after the pitch. It was our theory that “consumers, who are increasingly members of high-deductible plans, demand greater transparency and competitively priced care.”

Do they really make demands, though? I’ve often thought that all those HBR and Fortune stories with titles like “The Customer is King” need an enormous asterisk with the disclaimer, “Except in healthcare, where you get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

Without question, American healthcare is a system that has gotten used to the consumer only being willing and able to advocate for themselves in the smallest of ways – typically to treat a specific symptom, and not the entire sclerotic mess.

But there is a different feeling in the air these days. Reports show that the 15 to 26 million people who participated in protests over the murder of George Floyd in police custody constitute the largest movement in our history. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic that has boosted telehealth visits, according to some estimates, by 1,000%. And in case you don’t have a friend or neighbor who’s lost their job since March, 25,000,000 Americans are unemployed – in a country where our core default is to employer-based healthcare.

Is this when the movement moment jumps to healthcare?

Conversations about long-festering social and political issues that seemed impossible a few months ago are happening now – and making long-ignored issues unignorable.

In healthcare, consider that at the center of every interaction sits the least empowered constituent of all, the patient. There’s a technocratic and Hippocratic vision for where healthcare needs to go. But unless you’re an industry insider or leader, you’re likely not seeing much evidence of it.

Imagine how different things might be if consumers figured out that they could exert unbelievable pressure on the healthcare system? What if Americans were out in the streets demanding healthcare that really works for them, and doesn’t increasingly expose them to the risk of bankruptcy? In a country where 66.5% of all bankruptcies are tied to medical issues, what’s festering at kitchen tables and in courtrooms today could be in the streets tomorrow.

It's time to re-consider your brand's role in the future of healthcare

As an agency, we look for powerful forces running under the surface of everyday life. As in tectonics, when these gaps open widely enough, disruption floods out. Think of Warby Parker, Peloton, open source software, Waze, and Everlane. An epic level of human dimension is possible if consumers would organize around it.

Brands that are well positioned will have an advantage. And healthcare brands that tap into disenfranchised consumers might not just sit on the new healthcare landscape. They might just help to shape it from the ground up.