Innovation in health care: 3 lessons we’ve learned

By Philip Kaufman, Chief Operations Officer, UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual.

Across so many sectors, innovation remains the lifeblood of our economy. It pushes forward new technologies, services, products and business models. That said, innovation is hard — whether as a startup or an established company. 

I’d be lying if I said UnitedHealthcare’s size and position don’t impact how we innovate. But we work hard to ensure those things don’t constrain our capacity or ability. In my 10-plus years at UnitedHealthcare, I’ve learned 3 key lessons that have more to do with the how and why of innovation, rather than the what.

Keep the consumer in focus
Innovating to meet the needs of a health care consumer comes with a profound responsibility. It’s critical that we help to build a better health care ecosystem that can lead to better health choices and, ultimately, healthier lives.

All our innovation efforts start with market research to understand what the health care consumer thinks about the status quo. In fact, a significant portion of our innovation agenda comes from feedback given by our large clients and those in the broker and consultant community. And before we unveil anything new, we go through a discovery process that includes user testing and feedback.

One example of this lesson in action: When we heard from members that out-of-pocket expenses such as copays for PCP visits can be abrasive when they’re already paying premiums, we knew we needed to address this. Copays also can act as a barrier to the PCP relationship, which we view as essential. One solution we’ve made available recently is Care CashTM, a preloaded debit card to spend on certain health care expenses including primary care and urgent care.

We’ll continue to fine-tune strategies like this over time, but I believe the concept is strong. Members shouldn’t experience more costs as a first entry point into the health care system. That’s why we also offer plans with no copays for primary care visits.  

Keep affordability top of mind 
The purpose of innovation isn’t to beat competitors. It’s a welcome byproduct if you do what really matters: meet customer needs. For example, we know reducing costs is a win-win for employers and their employees.

That’s why affordability drives so much of our innovation agenda. It’s the why that motivates us to keep getting better. We’re looking to solve member pain points, and a big one is significant out-of-pocket costs.

How did we address this? One recent example is UnitedHealthcare Benefit AllyTM, a supplemental health product employers can offer to employees to help them cover bills related to an unexpected health crisis. If an eligible medical event such as an accident, critical illness or hospitalization leads to a large out-of-pocket cost, Benefit Ally helps cover that cost through a direct lump-sum cash payment. Here, we’re connecting the financial and health care needs that often intersect for members.

Be humble — and collaborative
A persistent myth surrounding innovation is that individuals with blazing creativity push the world forward. In reality, most innovation involves teams and some even involves collaboration or partnerships across companies. Innovation is truly a team sport. And like any team, you have wins and losses. Though it’s often hard to admit, it’s OK to fail. Learning from those failures can be invaluable to future work.

At UnitedHealthcare, we understand that we can't innovate in a silo. We seek collaborators in innovation, whether from external companies or within UnitedHealth Group, like from Optum.

Funded by UnitedHealth Group, Optum Ventures is a venture capital fund that invests in early-stage health care companies. One of these companies is AbleTo®, a virtual behavioral therapy and coaching program now available to members. AbleTo uses data to identify and proactively reach out to members with the depression and anxiety that accompany health issues such as diabetes and chronic pain.

This example of proactive innovation was grounded in member needs. And that need was never more apparent than during COVID-19, when AbleTo was available to support employees and their families.

As a major player in health care, we want to keep moving, to keep trying to improve and innovate. We know we’re not perfect — missteps are inevitable. And we can’t let our successes breed complacency. Something that was cutting-edge 5 years ago could be outdated today.

Maybe that’s a final lesson learned: Don’t love your wins too much, because the line between that and losing your ability to keep innovating can be awfully thin.

Care CashTM provides a pre-loaded debit card which can be used for certain health care expenses. If the card is used for ineligible 213(d) expenses, individuals may incur tax obligations and should consult an appropriate tax professional to determine if they have such obligations. The information provided in connection with Care Cash is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should be construed as medical advice.  Individuals should consult an appropriate health care professional to determine what may be right for them.

UnitedHealthcare Benefit AllyTM offers Accident Protection, Critical Illness, and Hospital Indemnity products provided by UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company. Each product provides separate limited benefits. Accident Protection, Critical Illness and Hospital Indemnity coverages are NOT considered “minimum essential coverage” under the Affordable Care Act and therefore none of the products satisfy the mandate to have health insurance coverage. Failure to have other health insurance coverage may be subject to a tax penalty.  Please consult a tax advisor. The policies have exclusions, limitations, reductions of benefits, and terms under which the policy may be continued in force or discontinued. For costs and complete details of the coverage, call or write your insurance agent or the company.  These products are not available in all states. UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company is located in Hartford, CT.

AbleTo’s Therapy 360 program offers personalized, confidential one-on-one coaching and therapy via phone. With next-day access to a nationwide network of 300+ highly trained, clinically supervised therapists (LCSW) and behavior coaches, our program will give you the tools you may need to improve your daily life.

Philip Kaufman
Chief Operating Officer
UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual

Philip Kaufman is Chief Operating Officer of UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual (E&I), where he is accountable for aligning and leading the strategy, operations, product, marketing, advocacy, digital and business advancement functions in support of and in close collaboration with E&I’s businesses.

Philip previously served as Chief Executive Officer of UnitedHealthcare of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, where he brought together the enterprise capabilities and functions needed for the successful launch in these new markets. Over the last 18 years, Philip has held several leadership positions within UnitedHealth Group, including President of UnitedHealthcare Specialty Benefits and Chief Executive Officer of UnitedHealthcare Vision. 

Prior to joining UnitedHealth Group, Philip worked in mergers and acquisitions for the Rothschild Group and Deutsche Bank AG.

Philip holds a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School, a Master of Health Care Delivery Science from Dartmouth and Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Harvard University. Philip sits on the Board of Directors for the Minneapolis St. Paul Economic Development Partnership, as well as the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

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