Innovating healthcare access on the path to health equity

Lindsey Christensen

Why a healthtech event in Texas? Healthcare innovation, like many areas of tech, has been growing rapidly in Austin over the last decade. But as was also noted during Healthtech Austin’s Future of Care Delivery Summit, it’s also incredibly valuable to prove programs and products out in Texas specifically because if it can work here, it can work anywhere.

The healthcare systems aren’t broken. They’re working exactly how they were designed to work. A sentiment shared multiple times throughout the day.

While the speakers came from a variety of disciplines within healthcare, Healthtech Austin’s Summit had an undeniable throughline amongst the talks. What do a startup founder, a public healthcare district president, non-profit innovation lead and a professor have in common? For one, a laser focus on healthcare equity.

I left the Healthtech Austin Summit convinced we will continue to see consumer healthtech disrupt systems that just don’t work for the general population. I also left inspired.

Where did my inspiration and hope stem from? Healthcare systems (and I speak to my experience in the United States) can be overwhelming and discouraging. Disease and recovery statistics are dire. The costs and disparity in access to care for populations based on geography and race seems to only be increasing. And so it was uplifting to hear from and meet incredibly talented folks in the healthcare community who are focused on improving the status quo with realistic, actionable strategies for moving the needle.

But I also had a second, more personal source of inspiration. I clearly saw the role thoughtbot can play in this herculean effort. Healthcare needs accessible, human-centered solutions built with equity in mind. That’s exactly what we partner with our clients on.

Some of my highlights from the individual TED-talk style presentations

Desmar Walkes, MD, Medical Director/Health Authority at Austin Public Health

Dr. Walkes kicked off the day speaking to the disparities and inequity in healthcare and life expectancy in Austin. She set the tone for the urgency to use the data, tools, and community we have to improve access. Coming out of the Covid pandemic, new telehealth solutions have expanded healthcare access to underserved populations in Austin, but we must continue to increase efficiencies and streamline care.

Fred Turner, Co-Founder/CEO at Curative

A Netflix Model for the Next Generation Healthcare

Like a lot of startups, Curative pivoted to supporting the Covid crisis in 2020, conducting Covid testing labs around the country. In the process, Fred Turner and his team saw all of the cracks in the insurance systems as they tried to work with them. When too much time is wasted struggling with Payers, how do any organizations have bandwidth to focus on the important things like improving product and patient experience?

The space hasn’t been totally without innovation. Companies like Oscar Health are seeing a lot of success with a disruptive direct to consumer model. But what about large employer healthcare, where most people get their healthcare in the US? Fred sees this as the untapped opportunity and where Curative is now building.

The Curative thesis is that the deductible model is inherently flawed and worsens patient outcomes while increasing costs to the Payer. There is a deceptive early return to the Payer in the first 3 years - a decrease in cost of 12%. Sounds great, right? Fred went on to describe that this decrease in costs is actually because the patient doesn’t go for their preventative care visits - physical, mammogram, colonoscopy etc. Without the preventative care visits, they are kicking the (larger) health issues and (higher) health costs down the road. The incentivization is wrong.

Curative is experimenting (now available in Austin) with a model that provides \$0 out of pocket for the patient so long as they go to preventative visits and participate in the Curative health education onboarding.

Mike Geeslin, President and CEO at Central Health

Health Equity: Where are we now?

Mike is the CEO and President of Central Health, the healthcare district for Travis County (which includes Austin). Central Health’s core objective is to be a healthcare system that provides high-quality, equitable care for low-income residents. It’s a publicly funded program for folks under the poverty level to get medical access through partners and events.

As a public agency, Central Health also produces data-rich public reports to help inform and inspire action. Last year, they published a health equity report as well as their annual demographic report. Mike emphasized that data is great but incomplete when it comes to community health. “You need to sit down and listen to people’s stories about how they experience the healthcare system” and so the report also highlights voices from the community.

Mike encouraged the audience to use the two reports as a hiker might pair a weather report with a map to navigate their voyage. Healthcare systems must accelerate programs that are working while getting out and talking to people in a way that’s culturally inclusive and meets people where they’re at in their health journey.

Kacie Kelly, Chief Innovation Officer at Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute

Today’s Solutions for Better Mental Health Care Tomorrow

For me, Kacie Kelly’s talk tied a lot of the Summit’s themes together. She began by noting that Texas can be a leader in delivering mental health solutions. Texas has size, diversity, and the economic opportunity to test and refine solutions. If it can scale in Texas, it can scale anywhere.

Kacie led with some statistics that fuel her work at the Meadows Institute to improve mental healthcare. To name a few, in 2021 there were over 4,000 deaths by suicide and 5,000 substance-related deaths.

Most mental health issues are diagnosed in hospitals or the judicial system. The healthcare system is not effective. Of 21 million adults with depression, there are only 2 million with access to high quality care. The light at the end of the tunnel is that when people get care, they do improve.

And so the big question is: How do we scale the things we know work? Kacie emphasized that early detection is critical and mental healthcare needs to be integrated within school systems and the standard healthcare system.

She highlighted the importance of digital solutions to augment the human work. We must embrace data-driven, evidence-based digital solutions because we don’t have enough humans on the planet to patch up the hole that is the mental health crisis.

One such digital health initiative is Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine (TCHATT). A teacher can notify that a student urgently needs help at the press of a button. The student will then get 4 sessions of therapy. It’s not the whole solution by any means, but a starting point. These programs need solution partners to help expand the clinical network and deliver care more efficiently and effectively.

To accelerate change and bring more venture capital into Texas for digital health startups, Kacie and the Meadows Institute have launched their first in a series of challenges. You can learn more and apply to the Telocity Mental Health Innovation Challenge here.

Get involved, get innovative

It was clear at the Healthtech Austin: Future of Care Delivery Summit how connected and collaborative the community in Austin is. It reminded me of the health and life sciences community I left behind not too long ago in Boston. This industry, perhaps more than any other, is reliant on community and partnership to advance, innovate, and deliver outcomes.

If you’re interested in participating in a healthtech incubator or accelerator, but early in your product/business concept, check out the thoughtbot incubator.