Engage at HLTH: As patient engagement solutions abound, here’s what investors are looking for

As patient engagement solutions proliferate, potential partners are looking for ones that are driving patient outcomes. Investors advised startups to work with trusted clinicians and keep track of key metrics in a panel at HLTH’s patient engagement track hosted by MedCity News.

Years ago, patient engagement was considered a standalone product. But changing patient expectations and the Covid-19 pandemic have turned it into a must-have.

“Where I see patient engagement now: I see it as a table-stakes component of anything in the market,” said Laura Veroneau, a partner with Optum Ventures.

The challenge many startups face is that getting people to act on that information is still very difficult.

“We often underestimate how hard it is to change patient behavior,” said Dan Gebremedhin, a partner at Flare Capital. “It’s something all entrepreneurs need to be mindful of.”

One suggested route is to engage patients through someone they trust, such as their doctor. That’s part of why Advocate Aurora Health led a recent investment in Xealth, a company that builds the patchwork between digital health solutions and EHRs.

“For patient engagement, it’s pretty onerous to just put it onto the patient. Who is the next person that a patient trusts that is supposed to be part of that process?” said Dipa Mehta, vice president of corporate development and ventures at Advocate Aurora Health. “For a number of you… it’s providers.”

Gebremedhin agreed that physicians are far more effective at connecting with patients than insurers, but has another theory: The patients that are easiest to engage with are those that are actively seeking out help, such as through direct-to-consumer channels.

Because of this, direct-to-consumer companies have also gotten the attention of big insurers, like UnitedHealth Group. Part of Veroneau’s approach is to look at direct-to-consumer models and see if there’s a potential opportunity on the enterprise side. For example, Optum has been a returning investor in home testing company LetsGetChecked.

“They were starting to figure out something in that market,” Veroneau said. “And we thought there might be a piece of what they’re doing that could be translated on the enterprise side if someone could just explain to the enterprise what this special sauce was.”

What investors want to see
All of the panelists emphasized that it’s important for startups to have evidence that their solution is helping patients.

“Figure out how you can show those outcomes, show that return on investment, because the space is exhausted on the patient engagement side,” Veroneau said. “The concept alone is sort of tired because there have been so many point solutions and ineffective solutions in terms of ability to scale.”

Mehta echoed the importance of more substantive solutions that can fit into a health system’s workflow. Smaller point solutions, such as something focused on scheduling within primary care, can be more difficult to deploy.

“We’ve got our own systems that we want to deploy and our own EMR within Epic. Trying to reconcile a specific application to put into a larger system has been difficult,” she said. “Where it’s been successful is when there’s a care model alongside it versus just being the technology portion.”

One unsolved question is even if healthcare startups successfully engage patients, and take on risk, how do they get credit for their work? And how much is too much?

“Everyone wants to engage the patient, everyone wants to navigate the patient,” Gebremedhin said. “This is going to come to a head at some point.”

Photo credit: Anastasia Usenko, Getty Images

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