Health Plans Need Big Data Smarts To Prove Their Value

Posted on November 2, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Recently, Aetna cut a deal which suggests a new role for health insurers in big data analytics and population health management. In partnership with Merck, the health insurer is launching a new program using predictive analytics to identify target populations and provide them with health and wellness services. AetnaCare will start by targeting patients with diabetes and hypertension in the mid-Atlantic U.S., but it seems likely to go national soon.

In its press release on the matter, Aetna says the goal of the program is to “proactively curate various health and wellness services… to support treatment adherence, ensure that critical social support needs are met, and reinforce healthy lifestyle behaviors.” That in and of itself isn’t a big deal. We all know that these are goals shared by providers, employers and health plans, and that most of the efforts health plans make on this front are pie in the sky, half-baked initiatives featuring cutesy graphics and little substance.

But then, Aetna’s chief medical officer gives away the real goal here — to power this effort by analyzing patient data being spun out by patients in varied care settings.  In the release, Dr. Harold Paz notes that patients are getting care in a wide variety of settings, including retail clinics, healthcare devices, pharmaceutical services, behavioral health, and social services, and that these services are seldom coordinated well, and implies that this is the real problem Aetna must solve.

If you listen to this with the ears of a health IT chick like myself, you hear Aetna (and Merck, actually) admitting that they must engage in predictive analytics across all of these encounters – and eventually, use these insights to help patients make good healthcare choices. In other words, they have to think like providers and even offer provider-like services fulfill their mission. And that means competing with or even beating providers at the big data game.

The truth is, health plans are in the same boat as providers, in that they’re at the center of a hailstorm of data and struggling with how to make use of it. Also, like providers they’re facing pressure from health purchasers to slow healthcare cost growth and boost patient wellness. But I’d argue that they’re even less prepared, technically and culturally, to improve health or coordinate care. So jumping in now is critically important.

In fact, I’d argue that health insurers are under greater pressure to improve population health than even sophisticated health systems or ACOs. Why? Because while health systems and ACOs can point to what they do – they make people better, for heaven’s sake — insurance companies are the eternal middleman who must continue to prove that they add value to the healthcare equation.

It remains to be seen whether programs like AetnaCare succeed at helping patients find the resources they need to improve and maintain their health. But even if this concept doesn’t work out, others will follow. Health plans need to leverage their unique data set to boost quality and reduce costs. Otherwise, as providers learn to work under value-based payments and accept risk, employers will have increasingly good reasons to contract directly — and leave the insurance industry out of the game entirely.