This post was originally featured on EMRandHIPAA.
In The Great Re-Bundling of Healthcare, I argued that healthcare will be rebundled along new dimensions because technology will break assumptions that predicated bundling in the analog era of healthcare delivery.
In that post, I noted that a few industries have been completely dismantled and rebundled by technology:
The print publishing industry – newspaper and magazines – thought that their unique value was in their core product – news, editorials, and classifieds. But the unique value they delivered was in printing and distribution. When the Internet reduced the cost of printing and distribution to effectively $0 and free news became the standard, their businesses collapsed. Print publishers are left servicing the paper news market, which is a fraction the size of the overall digital news market.
Taxi companies thought that their local, retail, administrative, and regulatory overhead was necessary to solve the get-from-point-a-to-point-b problem. Using the Internet, Uber, Lyft, and SideCar proved that none of those overhead functions matter, enabling a new era of get-from-point-a-to-point-b solutions. Taxi companies are left servicing the I-haven’t-heard-of-Uber and there-aren’t-enough-Uber-drivers markets, both of which are rapidly shrinking.
Hotels thought constructing buildings and staffing employees was the only way to solve the get-a-place-to-stay-for-the-night problem. Using the Internet, AirBnB proved that anyone can solve the get-a-place-to-sleep-for-the-night problem for anyone else. Hotels are left servicing the high-end, premium service market in the get-a-place-to-stay-for-the-night business.
These examples beg the question: when healthcare is completely rebundled around digital delivery, what businesses will healthcare providers really be in?
In the examples above, the Internet empowered laymen to circumvent legacy establishments. Using the Internet, laymen performed the same tasks more affordably than traditional retail businesses.
With Watson-like self-diagnostics; an army of cheap, connected, sensors; and a wealth of freely available information on the web, laymen will increasingly self-diagnose and self-medicate whenever and however possible. This process will start at the low end – the simple stuff such as common colds, simple bumps and bruises – and increasingly move up market.
Over time, tri-corders (such as Scanadu), smartphone EKGs (such as AliveCor), smartphone ultrasounds, CTs, MRIs, and blood tests will empower patients to gather all of the necessary diagnostic information without ever visiting a retail medical facility. Patients will send data to providers electronically and consult with providers via video conference. The web will obviate the need for most retail overhead, capital expenditure, and labor cost associated with most care delivery.
Medicine will be disrupted from the bottom up. Hospitals won’t completely go away, but they will be left servicing the high-end of the market – ICUs, surgery, labor and delivery, and other high-acuity conditions – just as hotels, print publications, and taxis service the most expensive segments of their respective markets. The vast majority of care will be delivered as virtually and cost effectively as possible.
By circumventing retail establishments, medicine will centralize as geography loses relevance. Just as the hotel and taxi industries consolidated around mega-platforms such as Uber and AirBnB, healthcare will consolidate around provider hubs that service enormous populations. The mega healthcare systems will have the tools to centrally manage populations and interact with them contextually. The major health systems of the analog era that were bounded by geography will battle to become national behemoths as geography becomes irrelevant. Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and others are already doing this by establishing virtual clinics across the country.
Why did the publishing industry, taxi industry, hotel industry, and travel agency industries collapse? Why will all of the old practices of medicine collapse? Cost. The most costly aspects of delivering care are labor and retail overhead. As increasingly small, localized, connected computers gather an increasingly large amount of data, computers will help patients self-diagnose and self-medicate without the need for expensive retail or labor overhead. Computers will automate inherently repetitive processes.
So how do I answer the question I posed in the title of this post? I’ll do some high level math. About 15% of the cost of delivering care is associated with billing and administrative overhead. About 40-50% is provider labor. There’s another 5-10% is spent on other miscellaneous expenses. And the remainder of costs are in capital expenditures including retail overhead. I suspect that 50-60% of total healthcare costs could be cut when healthcare is fully digital.