Healthcare disruption by tech giants and insurance companies?

On 02/10/2018 the Washington Post featured an interesting article “The tech industry thinks it is about to disrupt healthcare, don’t count on it“, by Carolyn Johnson. The article provides a unique insight in a failed high-tech healthcare solution intended to disrupt healthcare.

Failed disruption

In 2016, IBM employees in the Raleigh-Durham area were offered access to a handy new health-care app with tools to help patients navigate the many choices they face when they fall ill. The project was powered by Harvard Medical School, the health insurer Anthem and IBM.

The app offered a symptom checker, an overview of the options for care, a map of nearby facilities covered by the person’s insurance, free video consults with a doctor 24 hours a day and a breakdown of the out-of-pocket costs people would face at different locations.

The first problem the app faced was simply getting people to download it. Emails and letters to 400 IBM employees offering a $20 gift card yielded just 30 sign-ups. The recruitment letter was tweaked and the bonus was upped to $50, but out of 700 letters sent out, only 60 people signed up. The second problem was getting people to use it. 

Two years in, the app was declared defunct.”

Healthcare as a consumer market

Now, the app mentioned above is not the only available tool. As Johnson writes “The health-care landscape littered with digital walled gardens — Web portals where patients can access their medical records, insurance company websites with information about their plan, fitness apps where patients collect their own data. A person might find a doctor on one website but have to log in somewhere else to find out whether the physician is covered by their plan. People who search for their symptoms don’t automatically get served information linked to their benefits, advising them on where they could go and how much it would cost.”

However, the above assumes that healthcare is a consumer market. It is not.

Letter to the editor

I therefore sent an letter to the editor. This letter got published on Saturday February 17 in the Washington Post, see below:

Disruption in other industries

In the markets that have been upended by technology (travel, booking, taxis, brick and mortar stores), tech companies often replaced the role of intermediaries. They could disrupt by building an interface that was compelling and appealing to consumers and cut out the middleman. In other areas, tech companies created superior mousetraps, like the phones we currently have in our pockets.

Why does this principle of giving what consumers need not work in healthcare? Probably because healthcare is complex and very personal. Most consumers know what they want – grow old and stay healthy – but don’t know what they need to accomplish that. Not when they are healthy, nor when they are ill. We rely on healthcare providers – who have years of training – to tell us what we need. We trust – not in the least part because of the oath healthcare providers took – that doctors put the interest of the patient above anything else. And that they come up with a treatment plan that works for us.


Depending on the service model, patients may get too much or too little care. There are undoubtedly also a few incompetent and perhaps even corrupt doctors. Yet, overwhelmingly, I think we trust our healthcare providers. Tech and insurance companies have a far worse reputation when it comes to how they treat our information and well-being. Every day you can read about how stockholders and profits are prioritized by tech giants and insurance companies. Can we ever trust these tech giants and insurance companies to have our interest at heart? Do we trust them with the information they will collect about our health?

For any new service to upend healthcare, it will have to come with the same level of professional trust and personalization as the current services. Who trusts the diagnoses that they have made themselves with the help of a selfcare app? Who trusts a tech company or insurance company with their health data?

For now, most of us will take the wait, the cost, and outdated service delivery to visit a physician and get an opinion that is trustworthy and from someone who has our best interest at heart.

The next generation

When betting on disruption in healthcare, my guess is that it is the next generation of healthcare providers that will take the lead, not tech or insurance companies.

Why the next generation?

First, because driving disruptive solutions requires admitting the current health care system is not perfect. Unless its problems are acknowledged, no solution that addresses these problems will be accepted.

Second, because you need to know how to develop and implement novel solutions in order to bring disruptive innovative solutions to practice. A skill set the next generation of physicians are keen to learn, as the “Whole New Doctor” initiative demonstrates.

Now, go out there and change the world for your clients (and patients), organization, and profession.





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