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Why You Should Be Looking Closely at Optum’s Acquisition of Change Healthcare

The hungry machine that is Optum, UnitedHealth Group's fastest-growing subsidiary, continues to eat. After the January announcement of Optum's Change Healthcare acquisition – just the latest move in a continued drumbeat of acquisitions, investments, and strategic partnerships – we're all keeping eyes on updated offerings and newly integrated strategies to play out. 

In fact, Change Healthcare is already living up to Optum's bold legacy by partnering with Amazon's cloud division to integrate de-identified claims, social determinants of health data, behavioral health data, and other inputs to improve therapies' effectiveness. 

This may seem like just another healthcare M&A story. It’s not. This is a story of the massive subterranean shift underway in our healthcare industry, and there are real implications for hospital and digital health marketing strategists.

The acquisition of Change Healthcare is about much more than a new tech platform. It’s the incorporation of massive clinical and financial datasets, in a world where data is the currency of the future. The new AWS partnership only solidifies this truth.

With Change’s patient engagement tool reaching 200 million people per year, and 60% of Change’s revenue coming from provider customers, we once again feel the ground beneath us shift a little more. The move also recalls Optum’s 2017 acquisition of the Advisory Board, which raised significant questions about UnitedHealth Group’s ability to see straight into the operational and clinical dynamics of thousands of healthcare organizations.

We’ve talked at length about how the pandemic is a windfall for payers, expanding cash reserves that can easily be deployed for acquisitions. UnitedHealth isn’t the only one taking action, as Centene also announced a $2.2 billion play for Magellan Health to expand behavioral health, pharmacy benefit management, and specialty care services. But UnitedHealth’s latest move is most interesting in the broader context of its acquisitions and investments. 

We mapped UnitedHealth Group’s and Optum’s acquisitions and investments from 2019-2020 onto the CB Insights Digital Health 150 industry map, which organizes healthcare innovation across 12 categories. This presents an interesting, albeit complex, picture: Optum is building a comprehensive healthcare system that spans every corner of healthcare delivery, insurance, and innovation. When you combine this with the 53,000+ physicians employed by or affiliated with OptumCare, it’s clear that Optum has become far more than its beginnings in pharmacy services and data and analytics. 

Optums Acquisitions
Original Digital Health 150 image by CB Insights on left; overlays by ReviveHealth on right

 

Implications

So. What if the Amazon of healthcare isn’t in fact Amazon, but Optum? We see three key implications for healthcare marketing and strategy leaders that should be considered. 

1. Rapid adoption of data-driven insight. Optum already has one of the most sophisticated analytical infrastructures in the industry, and they’re now extending it into every aspect of care and communication. Take their investment in mPulseMobile, a healthcare engagement and communications platform that uses behavioral science and conversational AI to build an ongoing relationship with consumers. 

Health systems must grow beyond traditional methods of patient engagement and expand into robust data-driven marketing programs. This effort requires tight integration between the CMO and CIO to bring data into the marketing efforts and fund the systems necessary to execute in a more personalized approach. The alternative is ceding that consumer relationship and moving further down the commodity continuum. 

2. Integration of marketing, operations, and clinical. Optum is responding to the dispersion of healthcare by building an interoperable network that connects marketing, operational, financial, and clinical data. If they can pull this off, the value to the consumer will be significant: an easy digital patient experience and flow from virtual care to in-person visits to prescription management and ongoing engagement. 

UnitedHealthcare’s free COVID-19 vaccine resource locator tool, which connects consumers with FDA-approved vaccination sites, demonstrates on a small scale that UnitedHealthcare’s vision being a one-stop, digital-first stop for care decisions is on the brink of reality. 

To combat this, health system marketers must continue furthering their understanding and integration with operations, especially in the context of new virtual care offerings. In survey after survey, access and availability are key drivers to patient engagement with a health brand – it is no longer tolerable to drive demand to a service with a month’s backlog. 

3. Redefinition of clinical excellence. Optum is the largest provider network in the country, and recent evidence indicates that UnitedHealth Group is increasingly sending members into its own doctors, hospitals and health systems. As health plans take increasing control over the care continuum, provider value and differentiation is crucial.

Health systems must rethink and promote the differentiated clinical experience and value that they bring to patients – via personalized engagement. Optum’s expanding tentacles into hospital operations, matched with continued investments in innovative care delivery, should prompt marketing leaders to reevaluate their system’s brand value and engagement strategies in the communities they serve. 

The competitive landscape for providers will continue to expand as we head into a new era of healthcare dispersion. Those who will succeed must start playing by the same rules as Optum and other data-driven healthcare leaders.
 

January 8, 2021
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