Health Is Healthcare’s Biggest Innovation

(Image credit: Aetna)

“Health insurers traditionally try to help people through our call centers, but our approach now is to push innovations that make the provider community more successful,” said Henry Wei, Senior Medical Director in Aetna’s Innovation Labs and 2012 White House Innovation Fellow.

In 2011, Dr. Greg Steinberg was asked by Dr. Lonny Reisman, Aetna’s Chief Medical Officer at the time, to start and develop Aetna’s Innovation Labs. The team was tasked with identifying clinical and technology ideas that can improve the efficacy of the medical care its policyholders receive. Steinberg summarized it this way:

“Better outcomes are good for patients.”

“Since there’s an explosion in healthcare data and technology,” he continued, “we’re focused on finding the small number of initiatives that aren’t just possible, but have a reasonable likelihood of success.”

For instance, its pharmacovigilance (yes, there’s such a word) project aims to harness real-time data insights on prescription drug side effects, thereby giving patients, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and the government a far more accurate way to identify emerging and potentially unforeseen problems.

Another promising project is one that provides overweight or obese individuals at risk for metabolic syndrome an effective personalized solution for weight loss. More than ¾ of trial participants lost weight, with an average weight loss of 10 lbs. Better yet, the participants kept the weight off in part because of a 50 percent continued engagement rate with the program (double the industry average, as per this professional journal story).

Another project studied the potential benefit of Tai Chi exercises in reducing falls and improving balance among a sample of the elderly in Maine. This intervention yielded a 20% reduction in reported falls, and a 20% reported improvement in balance. It’s currently being deployed more widely in both the state of Maine, and among Aetna’s Medicare Advantage enrollees.

Yet another study on digital cognitive behavioral therapy identified ways to overcome issues of mental healthcare access and stigma by providing patients with anxiety and depression access to evidence-based solutions on a 24/7, telemedicine basis. It’s now being looked at via a larger trial.

“In each case, we’re building a business case for how clinical innovation can benefit our patients, partners, and business,” Steinberg said. Wei added:

“It’s not just about products, but also how to improve processes.”

“For instance,” he continued, “you hear a lot about innovative payment mechanisms, but our hypothesis is that we’ll need new clinical tools and methods.”

Steinberg noted that the company has a number of projects underway relating to autism, including an ongoing test of holistic ways to help clinicians assess and deal with kids’ co-morbidities, thereby enabling earlier inventions and better outcomes.

“That one isn’t going to save much money, but it will benefit those kids and their families,” Steinberg explained, but then put it into the context of a bigger picture.

“Our fundamental motivation is ethical. We are driven by a priority to do the right thing, because we know that it’s inevitably the right thing for our business.”