Amazon Care confirms five more cities, beefs up DC lobbying–but what’s the real game?

Amazon Care will be expanding in 2021, confirming five new locations–and maybe more. Kristen Helton, the director of Amazon Care, confirmed at HLTH21 that 2021 rollouts of the virtual + mobile care service would include Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles, ‘to name a few’. Ms. Helton confirmed that Washington DC and Baltimore region are live. The website does not state active cities, only permitting a zip code search and confirmation. Pharmacy delivery is also available in select, but not stated, areas. Healthcare Dive

Amazon Care originated with Amazon employees as a telehealth service, with in-person available to employees in the Seattle area. By March, they opened the full service (Video and Mobile Care Medical) to other Washington state companies. At that time, they announced that Video Care will be available nationally to companies and all Amazon employees by the summer–and claimed that in-person services would be rolled out to multiple cities by the summer. That did not happen. 

In June, at a Wall Street Journal Tech Health event, while being coy about the rollout, Amazon Care VP Babak Parviz said that the service would look like:

  • Clinician chat/video connected within 60 seconds
  • If an in-person visit is required, a mobile clinician arrives within 60 minutes, who can perform some diagnostic tests, such as for strep throat, provide vaccinations and draw blood for lab work. For other diagnoses, that clinician is equipped with a kit with devices to monitor vital signs which are live-streamed to remote clinicians.
  • Medication delivery within 120 minutes

Basically, what is not being said is that Amazon has been slow walking Amazon Care, probably wisely. With telehealth visits, mobile care, and pharmacy, there are multiple and complex elements to mesh seamlessly, which is after all Amazon’s Promise. What’s not so seamless is paying for it. While for Amazon it is with immediate payment for service, it is not for the patient–obtaining reimbursement, if available, is left up to the patient–at least for now, as reports indicate they are negotiating with Aetna. Amazon Care is also its own closed network.

There’s also the blunt fact that Amazon is moving into territory well staked out by major players that integrate employers, insurance, primary care, and pharmacy: Teladoc, Amwell, Included Health (Grand Rounds + Doctor On Demand), MD Live. They are now joined by UnitedHealth Care’s announcement a few days ago of NavigateNOW, a new virtual-first commercial plan rolling out next month to employers in nine markets and 25 markets by end of 2022. It offers 24/7 primary care, urgent care, and behavioral health care services through Optum as well as UnitedHealthcare’s national provider network. Many services and medications will have $0 copayments. Healthcare Dive, FierceHealthcare

However, if the cost of Washington lobbying is any indicator, Amazon is blasting off in healthcare. According to a report in OpenSecrets.org, “Amazon, which is creating its own health care service, is the biggest corporate lobbying spender so far in 2021. The company has spent nearly $10.2 million on lobbying in the first six months of the year, and spent $18.7 million in 2020.” The (unfortunately paywalled) report in STAT confirms the hire of Claire Winiarek from PCMA to be their new director of health policy.

This Editor’s opinion remains as in June–that Amazon’s business plans for Care and Pharmacy, and generally in healthcare, are really about accumulating data, not user revenue, and are certainly not altruistic no matter what they say. Amazon will accumulate and own national healthcare data on Amazon Care and Pharmacy users far more valuable than whatever is spent on providing care and services. Amazon will not only use it internally for cross-selling, but can monetize the data to pharmaceutical companies, payers, developers, and other commercial third parties in and ex-US. That’s a very different game than traditional insurers and the telehealth giants.

Theranos, The Trial of Elizabeth Holmes, ch. 4: we deceive those who want to believe

The Theranos Cave apparently has no bottom. Reportedly at the halfway mark, Tuesday’s trial focused on the testimony of former Theranos product manager Daniel Edlin. Recommended by his college friend Christian Holmes in 2011, he soon stepped into frontline work, assembling presentations sent to investors such as Rupert Murdoch, conducting VIP tours with demonstrations of the Edison labs, coordinating with the press, and with Elizabeth Holmes, plumping for Department of Defense and pharmaceutical company business. 

According to Mr. Edlin’s testimony, Theranos executives and staff staged demos and blood tests for investors and VIPs. Sometimes the blood tests worked fine, sometimes they didn’t (as in Rupert Murdoch’s case). Investors and reporters often were more interested in seeing Edison and MiniLab machines “work” without seeing any test results. All routine for an early-stage technology company. What was not routine was that other test results others were “corrected” (for Walgreens executives), reference ranges changed, or tests removed on the direction of Dr. Daniel Young, a Theranos VP.  The MiniLab never was used for patient blood testing as it had trouble performing general chemistry or ELISA tests adequately.

Rupert Murdoch’s (listed as a witness) investor presentation binder was entered into evidence. According to CNBC, one section of the binder read: “Theranos offers tests with the highest level of accuracy.” Another section said the blood-testing technology “generates significantly higher integrity data than currently possible.” Mr. Edlin testified that Ms. Holmes vetted every investor deck and binder, including the ones shown to DOD. The website, overseen by Ms. Holmes, made statements such as “At Theranos we can perform all lab tests on a sample 1/1000 the size of a typical blood test.” However, even Theranos’ general counsel advised against using these superiority claims:

  • “Please remove reference to “all” tests and replace with statements such as “multiple” or “several.” It is highly unlikely that the laboratory can perform every conceivable test, both from a logistical standpoint and because the CLIA certification designates specific specialties of test the lab performs.
  • For a similar reason, replace “full range” with “broad range.”
  • Replace “highest quality” with “high quality”
  • What substantiation do you have for “have results to you and your doctor faster than previously possible?”
  • Remove “unrivaled accuracy.”

To be fair, some of this language did change over time. The defense, for instance, had a try at shifting blame to one of Theranos’ marketing agencies.

But overstatements were a way of ‘fake it till you make it’ life at Theranos. The infamous Fortune article (later retracted by the author), the glowing 8 September 2013 Wall Street Journal article by Joseph Rago made at the time of the Walgreens pilot were felt to be overstatements by Theranos insiders, but never corrected. Walgreens and Safeway executives previously testified that they were told that Theranos devices were in use in Army medical evacuation units. But the truth was, according to Mr. Edlin who managed the DOD relationship, that AFRICOM (US Army African Command) deployed the Edison device in Cameroon, Uganda, and South Sudan to run as an experiment to test the viability of the machine. It was never deployed in the Middle East (CENTCOM). The Edison 4.0 was deemed too heavy and put off until lighter-weight units were developed. Nonetheless, Theranos received a 12-month service contract. 

The prosecution strategy here is to show that Ms. Holmes was hands-on when it came to marketing and investor communications, approved the overstated claims, and was not “controlled” by Sunny Balwani as the defense maintains. If anything, he deferred to her. 

CNN Business, KTVU Fox 2 running commentary, Daily Mail, California News Times  Unfortunately, the Mercury News, Bloomberg, and WSJ are paywalled.

TTA’s earlier coverage: Chapter 3, Chapter 2, Chapter 1

To be continued….

News roundup: Grand Rounds rebrands as Included Health, HealthEdge buys Wellframe, TytoCare rings Google Chime

Grand Rounds Health rebranding to Included Health. Virtual care and navigation telehealth company Grand Rounds, which merged with Doctor On Demand back in May, is adopting the new and inclusive name, Included Health. Aside from the full rebranding as a company that is “turning the existing model on its head” for those who “feel marginalized by today’s healthcare, and it’s all about subtraction, taking things away from us,” as Owen Tripp, CEO stated in the announcement at HLTH21, it’s also a convenient name. Around the time the merger was being finalized, this Editor noted that Grand Rounds had acquired a small care concierge/health navigation targeting the LGBTQ+ community called…Included Health [TTA 28 May]. Release, FierceHealthcare

HealthEdge acquires Wellframe. HealthEdge, which specializes in payer administrative and clinical systems connectivity and automation software, announced their intent to acquire digital health and care management company Wellframe. Terms were not disclosed. Wellframe currently serves more than 33 million members. HealthEdge stated that they would be integrating their GuidingCare and HealthRules Payor with Wellframe’s systems, along with Wellframe co-founder and CEO Jake Sattelmair, his leadership team, and approximately 150 employees. While there’s some overlap, the two companies greatly complement each other in integrating payer systems to work more efficiently end-to-end in member and care management.  Release

TytoCare Chimes In. Telehealth diagnostic TytoCare upgraded its two-way video capabilities using the Amazon Chime platform. Its new video features include enhanced video quality, multi-party calls, and the ability for clinicians to conduct remote visits on any tablet, including iPads. TytoCare enables users to perform remote physical exams of the heart, skin, ears, throat, abdomen, and lungs, plus measure blood oxygen levels, heart rate, and body temperature. Release

Short takes: Walgreens now majority share of VillageMD, CareCentrix; Lark Health lifts $100M, UnitedHealth Group’s profitable Q3 and Change delay

Walgreens has ‘gone big’ with its VillageMD primary care practice investment, putting on the table $5.2 billion. It’s now t the majority owner with 63% of the company, up from 30% last year. Their projected number of co-located full-service Village Medical practices is projected to grow to 600 by 2025, up from a current 52. VillageMD is still planning an IPO in 2022, making for a potential great ROI for Walgreens. Walgreens Boots Alliance also invested $330 million in CareCentrix, a post-acute and home care provider, for 55% of the company. CareCentrix was a recent investor in Vesta Healthcare [TTA 9 April]. Wrapping it all up is their new Walgreens Health, for tech-enabled consumer-directed primary care, post-acute care, and home care.

Weight loss and chronic conditions app Lark Health flew into a $100 million Series D, led by Deerfield Management Company, with PFM Health Sciences and returning investors Franklin Templeton, King River Capital, Castlepeak, IPD, Olive Tree Capital, and Marvell Technology co-founder Weili Dai. Their total funding since 2011 is over $195 million (Crunchbase). Lark claims an AI-based platform for individual coaching in weight loss along with related conditions such as diabetes, pre-diabetes, diabetes prevention, cardiovascular, and behavioral health. The platform logs and provides immediate feedback on food and tracks data from sources like Apple Health. The new funds will be used for R&D and to expand its virtual care integrations to more payers. Current payer partnerships include Anthem, Highmark BCBS, and Medical Mutual. Release, MedCityNews, FierceHealthcare

UnitedHealth Group, parent of UnitedHealthcare and Optum, reported $4.1 billion in profit for Q3, notching $72.3 billion in revenue for the quarter, a tidy gain over year prior’s $65.1 billion. The mega-acquisition of Change Healthcare to fold into OptumInsight is further delayed, being worked towards a closing of early 2022, having hit more than a few strong regulatory headwinds and the rocks of DOJ [TTA 14 Aug].  Becker’s Payer Issues, FierceHealthcare 

What’s next for telehealth? Is it time for a correction?

crystal-ballThe boom may be over, between shrinking visit volume and a pileup of providers. Is a correction in the cards? The flood of funding that started in 2020 and has not abated was kicked off by the pandemic and a massive shift to telehealth visits in March/April 2020 from a barely-above-plant-life number in January/February.

Post-pandemic, the shift corrected.

  • The peak of 69% of visits tracked by Epic in April had tailed off to 21% as early as May 2020 [TTA 2 Sept 20].
  • National commercial claims data via FAIR Health was lower. They tracked its peak also in April 2020 at 13%, falling continuously monthly: May to 8.69%, 6.85% in June, 6% in August, and 5.61% in October [TTA 9 Jan].
  • By mid-year 2021, the claims numbers continued to lose altitude: June 4.5%, July 4.2% (FAIR Health monthly report).

Despite the numbers, telehealth companies raised $4.2 billion of a total $15 billion in digital health funding in the first half of 2021, according to Mercom Capital Group, a global communications and research firm. So…what’s the problem with les bon temps rouler?

CB Insights notes the increased specialization of new entrants and, as this Editor has noted previously, the blending and crossing of business lines.

  • Companies like Heal, Dispatch Health, and Amazon Care will send a clinician to your house for a checkup–no running to your urgent care.
  • Kidney disease? Monogram Health. Musculoskeletal pain? Hinge Health. Child with an earache or fever? Tyto Care. Check symptoms first? Babylon Health.
  • Telemental health has gone from cocktail party repellent to the belle of the ball, concentrating on cognitive remote therapies. For the past year, it moved to more than half of all telehealth claims, with currently over 60% of procedure codes–and it’s consolidating. AbleTo was bought by Optum, Ginger bought by Headspace, SilverCloud by Amwell.

So for the Major League–Teladoc, Amwell, Doctor on Demand, Grand Rounds, and MDLive–what does this mean? If this interview with Teladoc’s CIO is an example, they plan to segue to a ‘hybrid’ model of virtual quick response plus integrating providers into a continuing care model with patients, creating a relationship with history and familiarity. A model that’s very much dependent on IT, analytics, and connecting with willing providers. But in this free-floating sea of verbiage, it didn’t come into misty focus till the very end, when he mentions Primary360 [TTA 7 Oct] and a virtual primary care team. (And let’s not forget Babylon360 along similar lines.) He finally sketches a view of all the connections to conditions coming together on a very far horizon. 

One can say it’s a cloudy crystal ball, indeed. FierceHealthcare, HealthcareITNews (Teladoc CIO interview)

Theranos, The Trial of Elizabeth Holmes, ch. 3: Safeway, Walgreens execs testify to deception, frustration with Holmes, failed pilots and labs (updated)

It’s Tuesday, and it’s another court day in Silicon Valley’s Big Trial, this time with the former C-level executives of Safeway and Walgreens who did the partner deals with Theranos–and rued the days Elizabeth Holmes walked in their doors. Updated for additional Tuesday testimony reports.

Former Safeway (supermarket) CEO Steve Burd returned to the stand for more prosecution questions and a turn with the defense. Mr. Burd had formed Safeway Health to introduce Theranos in 2010, after Ms. Holmes personally negotiated a deal with Safeway without attorneys. Ms. Holmes definitely wove a spell on Mr. Burd. “There are very few people I had met in the business that I would actually say are charismatic. She was charismatic, she was very smart, and she was doing one of the hardest things you can do in a business, and that’s to create an enterprise from scratch.” Always decisive, ‘she owned the room’.

From that point, and after an unusually high 100 hours of due diligence (updated, ArsTechnica 13 Oct), it was full speed ahead. But the potholes turned up fast after Ms. Holmes had convinced Safeway to invest in the company, claiming that they could run 95% of tests on one cartridge and that they could handle the volume from hundreds of store testing sites. During a pitch to the Safeway board, board member Michael Shannon offered his blood draw for a PSA test, the screening test for prostate cancer. The Theranos Edison machine “made a bunch of noise,” but never delivered a result, even after Ms. Holmes said something about getting it later (updated, ArsTechnica 13 Oct).

By the time the pilot started with regular blood draws, from the testimony, “there were results that didn’t make any sense. Samples were lost and samples were not properly cooled. He also said tests took days to come back when other companies could deliver in 24 hours. In an email to Holmes, Burd wrote: “I am genuinely concerned that Safeway’s lab reputation gets worse by the day.” By 2012, Safeway had built out 98% of 960 planned stores to hold Theranos testing sites, but had long since blown past the $30 million estimate. Multiple launch dates were missed over two years. By November 12, Mr. Burd had reached the end of his tether. “I can only recall having been discouraged once in the last 62 years. That said, I am getting close to my second event. ” and “This does not feel like a partnership, I’ve never been more frustrated.”

Theranos never rolled out to the public with Safeway. Mr. Burd retired from Safeway after a long career in May 2013.

Apparently the defense cross conducted by Kevin Downey is concentrating on The Big Chance that Safeway took with Theranos, after all a ‘startup’ that never built out their technology for consumer use, and all the regulatory hurdles the company faced. Mr. Burd confirmed it but he and the board reviewed the agreement and included requirements such as a CLIA waiver to operate the lab devices, negotiating preferred network status with commercial health plans, and a network of partners. Most of all, Safeway negotiated the right to terminate the agreement if the pilot failed and Theranos did not obtain FDA clearance. On the redirect, the government maintains that Theranos started in 2003 and purported to be making money (!!).

Up next for the prosecution was Wade Miquelon, former CFO of Walgreens. Walgreens was the only Theranos partner to put Theranos centers in their store. He testified to the presentation he received in 2010 which was similar to those received by investors. It included claims that Theranos’ technology could “run comprehensive blood tests” from a finger stick in real time and that it had partnerships with major pharmaceutical companies and military organizations–some of which were semi-true, the rest fictional. Apparently, some of the validation reports from pharmaceutical companies were false–while they had logos, there was one from Schering-Plough where its name was misspelled and never noticed by anyone at Walgreens. The prosecution had already established to the jury in opening arguments on 8 September that the Pfizer report endorsing the technology had also been faked. It had been written by Theranos, with a Pfizer logo added. 

Mr. Miquelon testified that he was never told that third-party labs were being used.“My understanding is, the blood would be tested on the [Theranos] Edison device,” adding later, “My understanding was that the base level testing would be able to do 96 percent of the testing done at labs.” He stated that third-party testing would be to check calibrations and accuracy. Relying on such testing would be beside the point of cost and time savings. 

Mr. Miquelon’s testimony will continue on Wednesday.

KTVU2’s coverage is nearly all tweets so it’s assembling a picture from many fragments. Ars Technica on Mr. BurdUpdated: Additional information on Mr. Miquelon: Fortune, Washington Post

Walgreens sued Theranos in 2016 for $160 million invested [TTA 9 Nov 2016]. The company was one of the few able to claw back substantial funds, a paltry $25 million, in August 2017. Safeway settled in June 2017 for an undisclosed amount. They had built out 800 centers and cost the company $360 million before the agreement was axed (updated for cost, ArsTechnica 13 Oct).

If you have access to the WSJ, their coverage details a trail of forged documents, massive fundraising–and losses, and partner deception. The NY Times ran an interesting ‘color’ article on the atmosphere in the San Jose courtroom. The trial is settling into a groove. Two court artists (complete with art) have interesting impressions of Ms. Holmes and the participants. The spectators appear to be primarily retirees with the time to line up for the 34 seats in the courtroom and 50 in an overflow room, though the testimony goes over the head of many. Ms. Holmes’ family and partner accompany her daily. And two jurors have departed, one a Buddhist who became uncomfortable with the idea of punishing Ms. Holmes. Judge Davila has already extended trial hours one hour to get through the stack of witnesses a little faster.

Our previous coverage: Chapter 1, Chapter 2

To be continued….

Babylon Health’s SPAC closing later this month at $4.2 billion value, buys California medical practices

Ali Parsa, CEO of Babylon Health, confirmed to FierceHealthcare yesterday that Babylon Health will be going public later this month via a SPAC. This is proceeding as closed in June with blank-check Alkuri Global Acquisition Corp., led by former Groupon CEO Rich Williams [TTA 1 June].

The pro-forma equity valuation is estimated as $4.2 billion, with Alkuri providing $575 million in gross proceeds to Babylon, including $230 million in a private placement from investors such as AMF Pensionsförsäkring and Palantir Technologies. The new Babylon Holdings Limited will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol BBLN.

After developing its GP in Hand triage service with the NHS starting in 2017, now claiming 102, 000 users, it has weathered controversies from clinical commissioning group (CCG) reservations to gender bias in its chatbot (‘Heart Sister’ Carolyn Thomas) to a litany from @DrMurphy11 to the BBC Two’s Newsnight treatment [TTA 9 Jan 20, 27 Feb 20]. However, Mr. Parsa believes that their value proposition (technically, a written document) is sound and that they are now poised for growth.

Newly developed products include Babylon 360, a digital-first value-based care service that includes the option for telehealth visits, and Babylon Cloud Services, a suite of digital self-care tools for patients and doctors, including an AI-enabled symptom checker. Expansion has been as far flung as Rwanda and the US, although in the crowded US telehealth market, Babylon has found it difficult to make a strong  impression versus Teladoc and Amwell, though they cover three million lives and has licensed providers in all 50 states.  They recently bought two California-based medical practices, Meritage Medical Network and First Choice Medical Group, opening an office in Palo Alto. Babylon also optioned to buy Higi health kiosks after a $30 million investment [TTA 30 May 20], which may close after the SPAC. Still, Mr. Parsa is staking the future on the US, where over 40% of global healthcare money is spent. 

Babylon has been growing 400% year to year for a few years with $79 million in 2020 unaudited revenue, a 394% year-over-year increase, and a projected $321 million in 2021, $710 million by 2022, and $1.4 billion by 2023. Hampering this sunny picture are Babylon’s continued losses: $76 million first half of 2021, less than their PY net loss of $91 million. 

Mental health apps Headspace, Ginger to merge into $3B Headspace Health

Two acquisition prospects, Headspace and Ginger, decided to beat the heat and merge. The two companies, currently headquartered in Santa Monica and San Francisco, will combine into Headspace Health. From the context of the release, the Ginger brand will be sunsetting. The merger is expected to close in Q4 subject to the usual regulatory and financial approvals. Financial terms were not disclosed. The combined company claims a valuation of $3 billion.

Leadership will combine from both companies. Russell Glass, Ginger’s present CEO, will be CEO of Headspace Health. CeCe Morken will remain CEO of Headspace and take on the additional role of President for the combined entity. 

Digital mental health continues to be hot in a hot August. Headspace, which started as a mindfulness and meditation app in 2010, then sidled into behavioral coaching to mitigate stress and aid in sleep, to date raised $216 million through a Series C (Crunchbase). Ginger, a cognitive therapy service with both self-guided coaching and psychiatric video consults, was founded in 2011 and raised $220 million through a Series E. Headspace has a direct to consumer focus with business partnerships with Google, Roche, and employers, while Ginger has developed into a benefit for payers like Cigna and Amerihealth Caritas. The combined company claims it will cover 100 million lives direct-to-consumer and through its more than 2,700 employers and health plan partners.

It is obvious from the management setup and the overpadded release (sorry, but it’s true!) that the lead company in this is Headspace. Can an IPO be far away? Release, Healthcare Dive

Telehealth Wars: Amwell’s raises game with buys of SilverCloud and Conversa Health (updated); Teladoc’s slow member, hospital growth lead to $133M Q2 loss

Updated. Amwell’s announcement today (28 July) of the twin acquisitions of SilverCloud Health and Conversa Health for the tidy total sum of $320 million in cash and stock was, if not quite a ‘see ya and raise ya’ move, a confirmation that Amwell was going to raise its game, at long last, versus Teladoc. SilverCloud provides digital telehealth programs for common behavioral health conditions. A spinoff of Trinity College Dublin, it counts as US clients Kaiser Permanente, Optum, and Providence Health, plus over 80 percent of NHS’ mental health service. Conversa is a StartUp Health portfolio company that developed a scalable care management triage system for at-risk patients that provides automated patient outreach and engagement tools that can move them to higher levels of care where needed. Clients include Northwell Health, UCSF Health, UNC Health, Merck, MedStar Health, and Prisma Health. 

For Amwell, this expands their capabilities in the hot behavioral health area and, with Conversa, into a care management platform targeted to providers, pharma, and payers. They see digital workflows, patient engagement, a longer-term relationship with their consumer base through the continuum of care, through these two companies’ hospital, health system, health plan, and employer clients.

The wrinkle? Neither company is all that far along–SilverCloud has total funding of only $26 million but is more established with 750,000 clients and 300 organizations. Conversa’s Series B was a tiny $8 million for total funding of $34 million. Amwell also paid a premium price. According to Healthy Skeptic, a blog written by long-time UnitedHealth Group senior healthcare executive Kevin Roche, their combined revenue was $15 million–more than a 20x multiple of the purchase price. The other challenge for Amwell? Making all the systems work together in a meaningful way–and to market what can be a confusing picture properly. Amwell press release, Mobihealthnews

Update 2 August. The Irish Times, undoubtedly working a local contact at Silver Cloud, ascertained that Silver Cloud was purchased by Amwell for a price in excess of $250 million. That means a tidy payday of €23 million ($27.3 million) for the company’s founders – Ken Cahill, James Bligh, Karen Tierney, Dr John Sharry, and Gavin Doherty. If that is so, Conversa was bought for $70 million or less. One wonders why a shell game tactic was used, as Conversa is known to be an early-stage company. Hat tip to HISTalk today.

For Teladoc, growing beyond urgent care, plus integrating the former Livongo and InTouch Health, presents difficulties. Telehealth usage continues to shrink as in-person visits rebound save for behavioral health, which is also bad news for the payers as utilization goes up. Teladoc now struggles to add new members after last year’s pace. Their hospital business that came with last year’s acquisition of InTouch Health is growing more slowly than expected [TTA 16 July]. The expected cross-sales traction with the former Livongo hasn’t caught fire yet, but that may change with myStrength Complete and the myStrength app going live with health plans or employers starting this month. The first enterprise customers are a major Blues plan (likely HCSC) and a Fortune 100 employer. [TTA 14 May]. Teladoc is also growing into other areas with more continuous user engagement, such as chronic care, weight management, and primary care. That program, Primary360, is in “very very late-stage” discussions with multiple payers. Teladoc, which has never been profitable, lost $133.8 million for Q2.   Healthcare Dive

Softly, softly: GPDPR comes to screeching halt, indefinitely, to be reworked

UK GPs and offices can now take an August holiday. The entire process of GPs extracting their data for the NHS GP Data for Planning and Research (GPDPR) database and patients opting out has been halted–or “deferred” per the letter from Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Jo Churchill. Formally, the Data Provision Notice was withdrawn on 19 June–and quietly. That means no more deadline of 1 September–or, in fact, any deadline, right now. 

According to the letter to GPs:

Instead, we commit to start uploading data only when we have the following in place:

  • the ability to delete data if patients choose to opt-out of sharing their GP data with NHS Digital, even if this is after their data has been uploaded [This is a significant feature that is expanded on later in the letter–Ed.]
  • the backlog of opt-outs has been fully cleared
  • a Trusted Research Environment has been developed and implemented in NHS Digital [Security based on OpenSAFELY and the Office for National Statistics’ Secure Research Service best practices–Ed.]
  • patients have been made more aware of the scheme through a campaign of engagement and communication

The revised scheme will be created in collaboration with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) and the British Medical Association (BMA). One wonders why these logical steps weren’t taken before deadlines were set, moved, and about five medical associations plus at least one MP excoriated the NHS publicly. Undoubtedly more tap dancing to come. Our most recent and previous coverage here. Also Pulse and HealthcareITNews EMEA.

IBM Watson Health’s stumble and possible fall

This Editor hadn’t thought about or seen news about IBM Watson Health in over a year…and likely, neither did you. Granted, our minds have been Otherwise Engaged, but for the company that was supposed to dominate AI and health analytics, it’s notable that TTA’s last two articles mentioning Watson Health was 25 April 2019, on a report that its Drug Discovery unit was being cut back as the latest in a series of executive cutbacks and lawsuits (MD Anderson on a failed oncology initiative), and 14 Feb 2020 on 3M’s lawsuit on unauthorized use of their software.

The New York Times in an investigative piece (may be paywalled or require signup for limited access), brings us up to date on what is happening at IBM Watson, and it’s not bright for Watson Health. IBM, like so many other companies, badly underestimated the sheer screaming complexity of health data. Their executives believed they could translate the big win on the “Jeopardy!” game show in 2011, based on brute computing power, into mastery of healthcare data and translation into massive predictive models. The CEO at the time called it their ‘moon shot’. Big thinkers such as Clayton Christensen chimed in. IBM managers sang its praises to all in healthcare who would listen. This Editor, on a gig at a major health plan in NJ that was ‘thinking big’ at the time and used IBM consultants extensively, in 2012 was able to bring in speakers from Watson for an internal meeting.

But we haven’t been on the moon since 1972 (though probes have visited Mars). Since the big push in 2011-12, it’s been one stumble after another. According to the Times:

  • The bar was set much too high with oncology. Watson researchers knew early on in their research at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine that their genetic data was filled with gaps, complexity, and messiness. The experience was similar with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The products growing out of the UNC and MSKCC research, Watson for Genomics and Watson for Oncology, were discontinued last year. These were in addition to the MD Anderson Cancer Center initiative, Oncology Expert Advisor for treatment recommendations, that was kicked to the curb [TTA 22 Feb 2017] after $62 million spent. At the same time, IBM’s CEO was proudly announcing at HIMSS17 that they were betting the company on multiple new initiatives. 
  • Watson Health, formed in 2015, bought leading data analytics companies and then didn’t know what to do with them. TTA noted in August 2018 that Phytel, Explorys, and Truven Health Analytics were acquired as market leaders with significant books of business–and then shrank after being ‘bluewashed’. HISTalk, in its review of the Times article, noted that along with Merge Healthcare, IBM spent $4 billion for these companies. IBM’s difficulties in crunching real doctor and physical data were well known in 2018 with revealing articles in IEEE Spectrum and Der Spiegel

Six years later, Watson Health has been drastically pared back and reportedly is up for sale. Smaller, nimbler companies have taken over cloud computing and data analytics with AI and machine learning solutions that broke problems down into manageable chunks and business niches.

What’s recoverable from Watson? Basic, crunchy AI. Watson does natural language processing very well, as well as or better than Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. Watson Assistant is used by payers like Anthem to automate customer inquiries. Hardly a moonshot or even clinical decision support. For business, Watson applications automate basic tasks in ‘dishwashing’ areas such as accounting, payments, technology operations, marketing, and customer service. The bottom line is not good for IBM; both areas bring in a reported $1 billion per year but Watson continues to lose money. 

Volte-face: VA now puts their Cerner EHR implementation on hold

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has pulled a 180° on the Cerner EHR implementation. In a move worthy of the old-time moonshine runners, VA Secretary Denis McDonough went before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday to announce that the deployment of the Cerner system in the VA is on hold. This is after maintaining two weeks ago [TTA 2 July] that they were sticking with Cerner and the implementation, pending a further review.

In the interim, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued two reports that criticized the unreliable estimating process for various upgrades to the system, including lack of complete documentation, and the implementation of the Cerner EHR at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington, starting in October 2020. HealthcareITNews

In a classic ‘falling on one’s sword’ in the Wednesday hearing, Secretary McDonough told the committee that the project review found multiple “governance and management challenges” as well as patient safety concerns and system errors. He attributed them to VA and Cerner leadership, or lack thereof. For instance, VA clinicians couldn’t easily find help from Cerner on the initial rollout at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center. The clinician using it called the help desk, reaching a Cerner employee there but a week. The Cerner EHR also generated duplicate prescriptions and confused patients.

The approach to implementing the modernized Cerner EHR approach will be ‘reimagined’ (DC-speak for redoing what should have been done right the first time, which started in 2017). This will start with a new, enterprise-wide governance structure to manage the project and integrate it with other modernizations, according to the Secretary. He admitted that the original plan to roll out the EHR by geographic area was a mistake. It will also not be synchronized with the Department of Defense rollout, which has proceeded without serious hitches. Go-lives will now be based on evidence of readiness, such as training, infrastructure, and management.

The Deputy Secretary has been designated to be directly in charge of the project. Acting undersecretary for health Richard Stone, MD, who had been in charge of the Cerner implementation, resigned in June after not being considered for the deputy secretary post. Secretary McDonough pitched the senators on quickly confirming nominee Donald Remy, with whom he will be speaking on big decisions. (One would hope. Mr. Remy, who was confirmed on 15 July. )

The final straw for the senators was budget. HISTalk summarizes: “The cost of the project, which was originally estimated at $10 billion when Cerner was awarded a no-bid contract in 2017, has risen to over $20 billion. McDonough has ordered a new budget estimate for the entire project, which will include the several billion dollars of infrastructure upgrades that the original estimate missed.”

Looks like the Old Gray Mare of EHRs, VistA, will be lingering for awhile. This Editor lays even money that the senators will be discussing the same issues, such as revenue cycle management, in 2025. Becker’s Hospital Review, Federal News Network

The implications of Teladoc’s integration into Microsoft Teams

The Big News this week was the terse announcement by Microsoft and Teladoc that Teladoc’s Solo application for hospitals and health systems will be integrated into Microsoft Teams applications. The integration includes workflows and through Solo, integration into EHRs while remaining in Teams.

During the pandemic, many health systems resorted to Microsoft Teams to communicate internally and one-on-one with patients. Integration means that while on the Teams consult, a clinician can securely access clinical data included within the EHR and workflows via Teladoc Health Solo without leaving it. It can also connect care teams on the consult. The release also mentions the magic words artificial intelligence and machine learning, without giving examples. 

As of now, with telehealth receding to perhaps 5% of visits based on claims [TTA 9 July], it’s a strategic win for Teladoc to integrate with a part of the Microsoft suite widely used by providers. It also builds on an existing relationship between the companies, as Teladoc already uses Azure as one of its cloud providers. Health systems still have to license Teladoc Solo if they do not already, and engineering work is yet to be done. Teladoc has a substantial foothold in this market due to its July 2020 acquisition of InTouch Health. InTouch’s hospital-to-home telehealth is now Teladoc Solo, with a separate line of business into the specialty telehealth consult market through its portable wheeled telehealth carts for in-hospital use. It’s notable that the InTouch brand remains, albeit visibly transitioning to Teladoc.

According to Credit Suisse’s analysis (page 3), 46% of C-Level executives from hospitals and health systems (combined representing 563 hospitals) said that they currently work with Microsoft Teams as a telemedicine vendor. 11% said they already work with Teladoc/InTouch Health.

As for telehealth already used by providers, such as Zipnosis’ ‘white label’ triage/telehealth system (now owned by insurtech Bright Health) and Bluestream Health, can they compete? Also FierceHealthcare

UnitedHealthcare pilots predictive analytics model for SDOH, sets out plan to transform into ‘high-performing health plan’

UnitedHealthcare and its parent UnitedHealth Group (UHG) have been busy in the past few weeks. Of most interest to our Readers with an interest in data analytics is UnitedHealthcare’s pilot of a social determinants of health (SDOH) initiative that uses de-identified claims data to identify members at high health risk due to social factors. UnitedHealthcare call center staffers then contact members to further determine needs and to assist them with appropriate community resources. These can include assistance with childcare, obtaining internet access, financial assistance with medical bills, healthy food options, and local support groups. Staffers are also trained to extend the conversation beyond the first call.

SDOH factors can impact up to 80% of a person’s health, according to research performed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The predictive analytics model for SDOH was developed with Optum from data gathered from 300 markets and across 100 metrics. Call center staff are also clued to members with needs through keywords or phrases that indicate a need for assistance: “I’m hungry” or “I’m struggling to make ends meet”. The initiative also allows employers to design interventions for their employees.

The pilot is for two employer products, Advocate4Me Elite and Advocate4Me Premier. About half of the contacted members in the pilot have accepted assistance. UnitedHealthcare plans to roll the program out to other fully insured employer plans later this year. Release, FierceHealthcare

UnitedHealth Group, the parent of UnitedHealthcare and Optum, published its annual corporate Sustainability Report. where SDOH has a considerable part. It’s a roadmap for transformation into a high-performing health plan that is part of a modern, high-performing health system–a very high bar for UHG as the largest US health plan. This builds on six points detailed on page 9, most of which SDOH affects:

  • Expanding access to care
  • Improving health care affordability
  • Enhancing the health care experience
  • Achieving better health outcomes
  • Advancing health equity
  • Building healthy communities

SDOH has become significant enough to become the subject of a House bill, HR 2503, the Social Determinants Accelerator Act of 2021, to support community groups in coordinating health and social services through grants, technical assistance, information exchange. It, of course, would not be complete without a federal inter-agency technical advisory council. There is a similar bill in a Senate committee and funding made available to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Determinants of Health Program. FierceHealthcare

An ‘insider’ point of view on the Connect America acquisition of Philips Lifeline

This Editor, through a search initiated due to reader Adrian Scaife’s comment on the article below, happened on a back article from a news source on the Connect America acquisition of Philips Lifeline. Who knew (as they say) that there was a newsletter solely devoted to the PERS business? The article was written from a real insider point of view with a complete background on Connect America, Lifeline, and also why Philips put Lifeline up for sale.

  • It’s likely that Philips bought high and sold low. In 2006, Philips purchased Lifeline for a reported $750 million, then HealthWatch for an additional $130 million. At the time of the announcement, PE Hub put the value of the company in the $200-400 million range. It’s understandable that with the rise of smartphones and mobile, wrist-worn band-type PERS, the value of what is largely a traditional PERS company would suffer, but the best case is a 60 percent loss over 14 years.
  • The industry believes that Philips mismanaged the company. Example: dealers did not have 4G/LTE cellular equipment to replace the 3G in the field. The phrases ‘a mess’ for the organization and ‘run the Lifeline name into the ground’ aren’t used lightly.
  • For the past few years, Lifeline has been in the shadow of Philips’ other clinically-oriented healthcare systems. As this Editor noted, Philips has divested or spun off multiple businesses in North America.
  • Philips ran the business without understanding its unique dynamics, including dealer networks and a B2B +B2C market of home health agencies and senior housing combined with direct-to-consumer sales. They focused on the latter and kept it on short rations for the past few years.
  • They were also slow to market with innovations and had a significant amount of negative publicity on the performance of AutoAlert for fall detection starting in 2011 (Editor Steve) and in 2014.

The Philips Lifeline saga was a longer and more costly version of Tunstall’s acquisition of AMAC. At the time of sale, Lifeline was #1 in PERS, and AMAC was #3. Even with Tunstall’s expertise and the addition of remote patient monitoring, the US market was Too Tough For Tunstall. They sold in 2019 to…drum roll…Connect America.

The article includes excerpts from an interview with CEO Janet Dillione, a review of the Connect America team, and well wishes from those insiders. PERS Insider (Subscription to the weekly newsletter is free and found here.)

Another irony: Just prior to the acquisition, Dennis Shapiro, the former head of Lifeline, passed away on 16 February, aged 87. Mr. Shapiro was responsible for the company creating the first modern PERS radio pendant, telephone-connected base unit, and call center monitored service in 1980.

 

Lightning news roundup: AI for health systems Olive scores $400M, VA’s sticking with Cerner EHR, Black+Decker gets into the PERS game

As here in the US we are winding up for our Independence Day holiday (apologies to King George III)….

Olive, a healthcare automation company for healthcare organizations, scored a venture round of $400 million from Vista Equity Partners. To date, it’s raised $856 million through a Series G plus this round and is now valued at $4 billion according to the company release. Olive’s value proposition is automating via AI routine processes and workflows, such as benefit verification discovery, prior authorizations, and billing/payments for health systems. About 900 US hospitals have adopted Olive’s systems. Mobihealthnews.

Breaking: The US Department of Veterans Affairs will be staying with Cerner Millenium for their EHR modernization from VistA. This follows a 12-week review of the implementation following failures within the $16 billion program itemized by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in February [TTA 19 Feb]. Secretary Denis McDonough is scheduling two further review weeks to determine additional changes to the program. The intent is to build a cloud-based system fully interoperable with the Department of Defense’s Military Health System (MHS) also built with Cerner. FedScoop, Healthcare IT News

And in the What Are They Drinking in Marketing? I want some of that, stat! department…

Black + Decker is now becoming a PERS provider with the introduction of Black+Decker Health and the goVia line of mobile and home-based PERS with optional fall extension and call center monitoring through Medical Guardian . The devices are a fairly predictable line of cellular-connected (Verizon, AT+T) with a ‘classic’ home landline unit. The units are being sold through Amazon. B+D release

From a marketing perspective, the Black+Decker name, identified for decades with home and power tools, on a PERS line is also a classic–a classic mistaken line extension like Cadbury mashed potatoes or Colgate frozen entrees. Buy a PERS, get a drill? Relevance and fit to a older, female-skewing group?  It surely looks like their parent Stanley, which is a leading company in institutional alarm and location services. offloaded this legacy business to them. (Judging from the website, someone’s in a rush as some pages still have ‘greek’ copy under headings.) Hat tip to a Reader who wishes to remain anonymous.