MARCH 13, 2015 – Despite a proliferation of digital health companies, payers, providers and patients have many unmet needs. The Pacific Northwest’s oldest insurer is trying to help find new ideas, outside the industry.
On Friday, March 13, Seattle’s commerce and technology scene officially welcomed the Cambia Grove, a large collaborative space for budding entrepreneurs, potential investors, and, perhaps most of all, some of the region’s largest healthcare institutions.
The primary sponsor of the space is Cambia Health Solutions, the parent of Blue Cross and Blue Shield licensed insurers in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. The Cambia Grove is being pitched as a free and creative space for hospital executives, physicians, health plans or patient groups to give a “reverse pitch” about their needs and problems to anyone who’s interested (former Amazon employees, maybe) in trying to create solutions that might also be commercialized.
It’s part of a quest to evolve the “2.0 healthcare economy.” Health insurers and providers “don’t have bandwidth or enough outside thinking,” said Nicole Bell, executive director of the Cambia Grove and a former network director for Cambia’s Regence plans. “I think we’re going to let the entrepreneur come up with disruptions that we have yet to see or think of.”
Along with Cambia, the Grove has several other old and new healthcare organizations as “anchor partners” hoping to cultivate practical ideas, including two health systems, the University of Washington Medicine and EvergreenHealth Partners, and the direct primary care company Qliance, a promising startup in its own right.
Bell stressed that Cambia Grove is not an accelerator or incubator, where entrepreneurs and startups trade equity or intellectual property for mentoring and funding. It’s a community resource that also happens to be a place with “an investor or two looking for great, backable companies, or a customer looking for a unique solution.”
The one request of Cambia and its partners is that participants take a pledge “to transforming our healthcare system to be economically sustainable and centered on individuals and their families.”
Seattle, fertile ground for new health ideas
In 2011, the Regence plans reorganized into the holding company Cambia Health Solutions and split into insurance and direct health solutions, which now includes 21 companies and slew of investments, including a stake in Qliance. Cambia, a tax-paying nonprofit with 2013 net earnings of $76 million on $8.4 billion in revenue and two million health plan members, could have a big impact by adopting new business models.
“We’re four years into the investment strategy and as we evolve from being a health insurance business into being a healthcare solutions company, we’ve realized we’re growing the portfolio, but not growing in our backyard,” said Bell, noting that Qliance is the only Washington State-based company Cambia has invested in.
After studying at Nashville’s success in being a healthcare business hub, with 300 companies expanded and started since the 1990s, Cambia started talking with leaders from UWMedicine, the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association and others to see if a similar kind of hub would benefit the Pacific Northwest’s healthcare economy, in the post-ACA, Internet-era.
Of course there are many healthcare technology companies already—branding themselves “the enterprise health cloud,” going public before turning a profit—but Bell shrugs off the notion of a digital health bubble.
“I’m not worried about that at all,” she said. “Healthcare is so far behind.” Compare a visit to Amazon.com to a “typical office visit” at the doctor. “It’s just a world of opportunity,” in part because a lot of healthcare technologies today (like EHRs) aren’t necessarily making a difference in their current iteration for end users.
“We’re good at digital solutions in the Pacific Northwest and we hope to compel people to look at healthcare,” Bell said.
A case in point is Qliance, a seven-year-old subscription based primary care network that now has 35,000 members (and quite a bit amount of interest from insurers). As Bell recounted, Qliance’s CEO Erika Bliss, MD, told Cambia: “We’re ourselves growing and looking at novel approaches we need to employ.”
Rather than issuing a request for proposals from vendors, Qliance and others could come to the Cambia Grove, give a reverse pitch to a few hundred entrepreneurs, software developers or engineers, and take a several of prototypes of ideas—and maybe end up using it. The healthcare organization gets to test a range of approaches, without committing millions of dollars only to see clinician complaints on “go live,” and the would-be entrepreneur can get a first customers, some revenue, case studies and variability testing—and then maybe investor funding.
Among potential areas of interest are neighborhood clinics, mental and behavioral health and palliative care. That last one is already a focus for Cambia, which sponsors the Palliative Care Center of Excellence at the University of Washington.
Perhaps moreso than at any other time in recent memory, Americans are exploring the limits of life and the experience of death, after decades of intensive hospital care being the defacto approach. Health systems struggling to “connect the dots” in the complexity of end-of-life issues, and trying to improve their communications with patients, could come to the Cambia Grove to explore a technology that would guide clinicians.
“Anything is possible,” Bell said.