ConnectedEconomy™ 2021: Forward Rethinks The Spirit And Intent Of Healthcare

There is perhaps no other sector in which the ConnectedEconomy™ can bring more benefits than in healthcare. The ability to integrate patient records across providers, simplifying payments, using biometrics and artificial intelligence (AI) to manage wellness promises to improve care and deliver improved health outcomes.

“The things that actually matter for your long-term health tends not to be what we engage in tactically in day-to-day healthcare today,” Forward Co-founder Rob Sebastian told PYMNTS’ CEO Karen Webster in a recent interview. “So I think if you change the framing from not talking about healthcare, but instead talking about health, you’d actually define the problem very differently.”

Effective Incentives

It’s been reported that investments in healthcare startups reached $80.6 billion in 2020. As Webster pointed out to Sebastian, in her experience covering the space, many of the new companies are trying to solve for access and affordability, which can uncover the inefficiencies in how doctors are incentivized to treat patients. While allowing that huge amount of capital is flowing into the business, Sebastian sees an even bigger upside.

“The last year has really proved to be a moment of reckoning for the healthcare system at large,” he said. “It’s a system comprised of really good people with really great intentions, but I think they’re often using the wrong tools and working for companies with the wrong incentives. And so from that perspective, I want to see more investments in something that I think of as literally one of the biggest, most important industries in the world. I think this is a place where you have a chance to truly, you know, positively impact humanity if you get it right.”

Sebastian believes one way to cut through the incentive issues is to leave only one in place: Patient health. Insurance payments to doctors as an incentive has been removed. Forward doesn’t take insurance, relying instead on a monthly fee which, at the moment, is $150. That has freed the company up to focus on its goals of incentivizing health rather than pleasing providers. The traditional healthcare system, he said, is not incentivized to care about patient satisfaction.

“And the reason is because they aren’t paid by you as a patient, they’re paid by insurance companies,” he said. “And what that means is they’re not actually motivated by whether or not you thought it was a fantastic experience, or whether or not you thought that your health outcomes were better. They’re motivated by whether or not they filled every slot in the calendar with billable events. The by-product of that is, I think, that we as consumers have [been] conditioned to accept scraps from the table.”

The Forward Take On Tech

That basic definition of “health and healthcare” colors Sebastian’s take on some of the key issues affecting the healthcare space post-COVID-19. The first is the usage of technology to transform the patient-caregiver relationship.

“We have all kinds of sensors that help us understand your body, your lifestyle, your exercise patterns and how you’re sleeping, plus the fact that we have machine learning that can massively outstrip a human’s ability to interpret all those signals,” Sebastian said. “And then you build a database as though you’re trying to teach computers medicine, not how to bill insurance. Then you have a chance to actually be with someone in the key moments in their life and develop some deep insight about what they care about.”

In addition to health monitoring and analysis, Sebastian also said the healthcare world could benefit from stealing another page from the technology sector: psychology. He points out that an incredible amount of research and development goes into such things as how to get consumers to click a button and wonders why that energy isn’t directed into something more meaningful, like helping a person live a better life. “That’s kind of a tragedy when you think about,” he said. “You take all that knowledge of psychology, user behaviors and design patterns, and you apply it to something trivial. Well, what if you took all of that talent and said, ‘let’s actually apply it towards getting you to do something to live a longer, better life?’ ”

A Focus On Improving Outcomes

Better outcomes are an area at the center of Forward’s primary care chain. It aims to connect consumers to those outcomes with a model that focuses on what Sebastian calls health rather than healthcare. The Forward experience begins with a visit to one of the company’s 11 centers. A new infusion of $225 million in Series D funding will help expand the number of those locations.

During the initial visit, which lasts about an hour, a full biometric scan is run which, along with blood analysis, can test for more than 500 unique biomarkers. After that visit is complete, patients work virtually with their Forward primary care physician to develop plans based on their biology and goals to become as healthy as they want and prevent the diseases to which they may be prone. Home monitoring equipment keeps an eye on important markers and if more lab tests need to be done, Forward can dispatch a team to the home to gather samples.

Forward’s tech-heavy, health-first is well-timed for millennials. In a 2019 survey from Harmony Healthcare IT, it was revealed that 45 percent of those aged between 23-38 had been putting off a health issue and 41 percent of them had been doing so for over a year. And while 76 percent had a primary care physician, 73 percent said they went online for medical advice rather than turning to their doctor. It goes back to Sabastian’s original philosophy: defining healthcare as the occasional doctor’s office visit that focuses on short-term diagnosis and treatment for what is usually a minor condition. “Health,” he said, should be very different. It should encompass a patent’s entire activity and lifestyle, including diet, exercise and sleep. Health, he noted, is very different than healthcare.

A Different Outlook

Once the focus is on health, not healthcare, the customer experience moves to the forefront and the consumer takes active control of his or her health.

Sebastian said he doesn’t want to stake his company on whether it gets paid by insurance. He wants it and the entire industry to succeed or fail on product quality, outcomes and the customer experience.

With that in mind, technology and healthcare access and affordability go hand-in-hand. Technology, he said, is the key to taking a completely bespoke service at present and scale it for the future.