Under the current terms of capitalism, corporate diversification and market consolidation are inevitable. One example? Technology companies like Apple, Google and Samsung are getting their feet in the door of health care administration. These tech giants make products that are very close to the body — like smartphones, wearables and household appliances — so it makes some sense to invite them into the process of practicing good health.
It seems a slightly stranger match, however, for a company like Comcast or Cox to seek an opening into the American health care system. One Comcast executive was quoted saying the telecommunications and entertainment company had identified a "massive market" in the health care sector.
They're certainly right about the massive opportunity in health care. Boomers are aging out of the workforce at a rapid pace, among other things. The question is whether we want or need companies with the reach and resources of sovereign nations administrating health care. This is supposed to be the kind of Orwellian setup "big government" street criers lose sleep over.
But let's give Comcast a chance to argue their case. What would a company like this bring to modern health care?
Comcast's Recent History of Health Care Investment
Health care is poised to become a $3 trillion industry, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It's not surprising that some of the largest companies in the world — the ones with billions of dollars of their own to invest — are looking for ways to secure a piece of this profitable pie.
In fact, Comcast has been working on it quietly for years now. The company already provides internet connectivity for many health systems, hospitals and other health care-related facilities. With that in mind, the company's "Comcast Ventures" has worked quietly on a small number of projects in the health industry, like a 2015 partnership with Kaiser Permanente Northwest to develop a pregnancy app. In 2017, Comcast and the University of California Davis produced educational health care videos together.
Now, Comcast has gotten involved with Independence Health Group, based in Philadelphia. You might know them as the parent company of Independence Blue Cross.
What's the Plan This Time?
As always, the critical buzzword being used by these corporate partners is "patient-centered." In the view of Comcast and Independence Health Group, the future of "patient-centered" health care administration looks like this.
Since Comcast already provides their business partners "a way in" to about 60 million Americans' places of residence, Independence Health Group wants to use this existing network and infrastructure to build a "digital platform" to reach health care consumers more directly. The vision for the platform is that it would help health insurance subscribers take more direct and proactive control over their own health needs.
The platform would, according to the partners, provide the following benefits:
- Deliver channels and resources with general, as well as personalized health advice for subscribers
- Provide a reliable and secure communications channel for doctors and patients to speak to one another over a distance
- Give patients information and instructions during every step of their health care procedures and appointments, including reminders for how to prep for surgery, what to bring to the office and more
Independence Health Group and Comcast have been financially linked since 1993. Comcast received corporate health care through Independence, and, in turn, Independence was an early investor in Comcast Ventures.
One primary reason why "patient portals" have so far failed to catch on with patients — adoption rates are as low as 10 to 15 percent in most cases — is because most of them are hospital-specific and not necessarily easy to use.
One way that platforms by Apple, Comcast and Independence could solve that problem is through convenience and ease-of-use. Most people have home internet access, and most people own and use smartphones. The checks practically write themselves.
Health Care in the Age of Cord-Cutting
Comcast isn't alone. Another of America's major telecommunications companies, Cox, announced a partnership in 2015 with Cleveland Clinic. The two vowed to launch a digital health platform of their own, called "Vivre Health."
Like the Comcast-Independence network, it would have delivered in-home health services, telemedicine, educational resources, appointment guidance and reminders and more. In 2015, Cox also completed its purchase of a telehealth company called Trapollo. Vivre went nowhere, but Cox has doubled-down on Trapollo and vowed to make it work.
The companies that deliver cable television have struggled with their own relevance for decades, as millions of people have chosen to abandon their cable packages altogether in favor of streaming and on-demand apps.
It's not a surprise that Comcast and Cox are seeking out opportunities to expand into other industries. In this case, they landed — predictably — on one whose past, present and future are heavily saturated with uncertainty, politicking, misinformation and lobbying money.
Apple, Google and Samsung all have health platforms and are seeking more "official" ways to tie themselves to known health systems and regulatory standards in the health care industry. Apple boasts that 40 major health care systems in the country use the Apple Health platform to let patients view their patient records and other information right on their iPhones.
This is the timely and informative interaction that Comcast and Cox have in mind for their platforms. Do Apple and Google have an inherent advantage? Is a company's access to a patient's or customer's palm and pocket — in the form of a smartphone — a more direct route than accessing that same patient through their home internet or cable service?
And is any tech company elbowing its way into a vital "industry" like health care just another form of rent-seeking behavior? The recent history of health care in America is moneyed interests, ensuring that our health care delivery and payment mechanisms serve profits first and doctors and patients second.
To put it another way, doctors became subcontractors in a transaction that used to be simple but now involves everybody from Apple to Xfinity.
There's no reason why a Comcast or Apple-branded digital health platform should be expected to fail. In fact, one of the best parts of Obamacare — despite its many problems — is that it provided a relatively clear and easy-to-use way for people to shop around for doctors and health care plans. It was the "graphical user interface" Americans needed to visualize what health care costs our families and country.
Technology is clearly the future of health care — but whose technology should it be?
It's also obvious that Americans are more in need of accurate health advice than many other world peoples. That makes all of these partnerships and investments potentially timely and beneficial for cable companies and health care customers alike.
Perhaps an overabundance of digital and traditional "solutions" competing for adoption and dollars is just what we need to chart a clearer course forward. However, one has to think that the best version of health care is the one with fewer — rather than more — bureaucratic and technological moving parts getting between doctors and their patients.