Op-ed: Why innovation in health care should keep the consumer in focus

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 — and it often gets even harder the more established a company becomes.

I’d be lying if I said UnitedHealthcare’s size doesn’t impact how we innovate, but we work hard to ensure it doesn’t constrain our capacity or ability. In my 10+ years at UnitedHealthcare, I’ve learned three key lessons about how to successfully innovate in an industry that’s ripe with startups looking to disrupt the market leaders.

Keep the consumer in focus

Innovating to help meet the needs of health care consumers comes with 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 is inspired by feedback from our clients and partners in the broker and consultant community. Before we actually unveil anything new, we go through a discovery process that includes user testing to ensure the product or benefit we’ve developed based on stakeholder feedback adequately addresses their needs and pain points.

One example of this lesson in action is our efforts to address the abrasion our members experienced when paying out-of-pocket expenses such as copays for primary care provider (PCP) visits. Members told us they found it frustrating to have to pay these costs when they’re already paying premiums. Copays also can act as a barrier to the PCP relationship, which we view as essential. One solution we’ve made available is Care Cash, a preloaded debit card members can use to help cover expenses, including primary care and urgent care costs. We also offer plans with no copays for PCP visits.

We’ll continue to fine-tune strategies like these over time, but the concept of making a member’s entry-point into the health care system as seamless as possible is strong.

Keep affordability top of mind

The purpose of innovation isn’t to beat competitors. That’s a welcome byproduct from doing what really matters: meeting 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. We’re looking to solve member pain points, and a big one is significant out-of-pocket costs.

How are we addressing this? One recent example is Benefit Ally, 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 and addressing the financial and health care needs that often intersect for members.

Be humble

A persistent myth surrounding innovation is that individuals with blazing creativity push the world forward. In reality, most innovation is practical in nature and involves teams of people working together. Some even involves collaboration or partnerships across companies. At UnitedHealthcare, we understand that we can't innovate in a silo. That’s why we seek partners in innovation, whether from external companies or within the broader UnitedHealth Group enterprise.

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 our members. AbleTo uses data to identify and proactively reach out to members with depression and anxiety that may accompany health issues such as diabetes and chronic pain. That proactive engagement helps to address barriers that sometimes prevent members from getting the behavioral health support they need and that’s so critical for more effectively managing their chronic conditions.

This example of innovation was grounded in member needs. That need was never more apparent than during COVID-19, when AbleTo was available to support employees and their families as they contended with the stress and pressures of the pandemic.

As a major player in health care, we want to keep moving, keep innovating. And we can’t let our successes breed complacency. Something that was cutting-edge five 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.