Last week, I attended the AHIP Institute & Expo 2018 in San Diego, CA. The event featured sessions with national and healthcare-industry leaders, including Jo Ann C. Jenkins, CEO of AARP, Esteban Lopez, CMO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, and Dr. Atul Gawande, recently tapped as CEO of the Amazon-Berkshire-JPMorgan health venture. With that superstar lineup, there’s a lot to digest, so we’ve pulled out the key messages health plans won’t want to miss.

Amazon is Raising the Stakes in Healthcare

Leave it to Amazon to flawlessly execute the announcement that Gawande was named CEO of the highly-anticipated Berkshire-Hathaway, JPM, Amazon health venture. The goal of the partnership is to reimagine and rebuild today’s broken healthcare system by creating an improved business model template. With their previous successes in other industries and Gawande at the helm, Amazon, JPM and BH have a chance to actually succeed.

As you might expect, enthusiasm came from the provider-attendees, who feel the pain-points of the current system the most. They see Gawande as a peer who makes decisions based on evidence, has demonstrated passion and intimately knows healthcare’s operational deficiencies. Still, for health plans, this announcement is tainted by the reminder that significant change is on the horizon. Some will win, but many will lose.

From Wholesale to Retail – the Health Plan Industry is Changing

The event included another clear message to health plans: members are your valued customers, so get to know them better. This was reinforced by the release of Salesforce’s new software for payers. It’s called “Health Cloud for Payers” and is a full suite of products designed to help payers shift to a retail, customer-first mentality.

Putting more focus on making patients feel like valued customers, similar to the way big-name retail players do, is just the beginning. To understand their customers, payers need to get in the communities where their customers are and engage them in ways that fit their unique cultures. Because regulations control how much payers can charge for premiums, brand loyalty is the key way for health plans to grow market share.

Case in point: Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island has taken the retail concept to heart. They developed three retail locations, giving them a physical presence within five miles of 70% of their customers, said Christina Pitney, strategy and strategic partnerships manager at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.

Virtual care and mhealth can improve the patient experience alongside the traditional doctor-patient relationship

One thing that stood out among all the speakers was that technology needs to be used to help, but not replace, clinicians. The opening session stirred up quite a bit of controversy on this subject when Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel made this statement on mobile health (mhealth):

“There’s just not a single study that shows that any wearable, connectable smartphone, wireless (technology) has made a difference in terms of outcomes.”

Emanuel holds a joint position in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the School of Medicine, where he chairs the Department of Medical Ethics and Health.

Despite the debate, there is increasing recognition that digital therapeutic apps such as Omada Health can positively affect health outcomes. In fact, these mhealth applications—rather than replacing the clinician—can support delivery of long-term patient care, informing and strengthening the doctor-patient relationship.

Payers are More Vulnerable Than Ever

Among the healthcare expo regulars at this event, there were some interesting new products, like a robotic suit that helps fully paralyzed people walk. There was also a stronger-than-usual presence of non-medical businesses, like Lyft and meal delivery services. The one thing that rose to the top of every session was that healthcare mergers, policy changes, and technological advances are happening at a phenomenal pace. Some larger companies are even skipping insurers altogether and engaging directly with providers.

The bottom line? Health plans who don’t change their business models to meet members where they’re at with advanced technologies and new strategies could be obsolete.

We have more thoughts on ways health plans can evolve. Check them out.