My company recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, which prompted me to reflect on the progress of the women’s health sector over the last decade. There has been so much change, so many technological innovations and clinical breakthroughs. And yet, two things haven’t changed all that much. Our outcomes in the U.S. have not improved; in fact they are in decline. This is true whether you are measuring maternal mortality, health equity, or complication rates. And as an industry, we’ve yet to unlock true transformation, the type of “re-imagining” that is needed to deliver the very best, most equitable, safest care to all women in a consistent and cost-effective fashion.
Meanwhile, recent events have cast even more clouds. The COVID-19 pandemic fully exposed the unsustainability of fee-for-service payment models. The Roe v. Wade reversal has the entire industry grappling with likely implications, which include growing disparities by race and income, decreased access to evidence-based healthcare services and additional burdens on OB providers. Clinician shortages have increased, while the number of available hospitals and birthing centers across the country have decreased.
Yet as much as I’m discouraged by looking back, I remain hopeful as I cast my eyes to the future. The very near future. That’s because I truly believe that the unsustainability of our current trajectory makes a complete rebirth of women’s health inevitable. This rebirth will be shaped by three seismic shifts that are coming soon.
Shift 1: Finally, We Will Fully Unlock the Potential of Digital Health At the Point of Care
Whether it’s the spread of maternity care deserts, worsening clinician shortages, provider burnout or even declining health system revenues, many of the pain points for our system in general, and specifically in women’s health, can be addressed and improved by more effectively deploying technology. And after a decade of record-breaking funding in the digital health space, the technology we need is already here. However, to address our current crisis, that technology must live within the workflows of existing providers, not as an additional layer that further splinters the system while disrupting the relationship between patients and their clinical teams.
While we have seen an avalanche of tech innovations emerge from the digital health space, this has also led to the creation of hundreds of point solutions that too often orbit providers, operating on the sidelines instead of integrating with the system. The technology shift that is coming to women’s health will be led by solutions that deeply embed into medical practices and flow seamlessly into the daily lives of clinicians. Technology that makes providers more efficient. Technology that gives them the ability to more effectively manage and monitor their patients.
I predict we will see massive adoption of technologies that operate in partnership with the providers who are actually delivering care to women. This will further the necessary transition to delivering personalized, curated, holistic experiences in a way that helps patients connect to care.
Shift 2: Value-Based Care Will Become The Prevailing Payment Model
Value-based care offers obvious potential for improving outcomes in women’s health. However, the transition from fee-for-service has proven to be extremely difficult. Momentum is building, but it is still a complex ask of payers and providers to collapse existing silos of care and transform existing payment models to properly align incentives. Not to mention the additional tools and technologies needed to manage data, engage virtually with patients and better coordinate care. Challenges aside, we continue to see movement and progress because this is the right thing to do: for patients, for providers, and for the entire system.
Value-based models not only help align payers and providers to work together while ensuring appropriate rewards for quality outcomes. These approaches also serve as a way to fuel further innovation and prioritize unmet needs. Take health equity as an example. To be successful in value-based care, we must do a better job supporting all women, not just some of them. We also can include equity metrics in the financial model so that all stakeholders are specifically incented to improve in this area.
I remain confident that value-based models will increasingly gain traction, starting within the maternity space, and quickly expand to other aspects of women’s health as both payers and providers become more comfortable with these approaches and see how powerful these models are for improving quality and reducing cost.
Shift 3: A Holistic Model for Women’s Health Will Emerge
Until the age of 50, the majority of women rely on their OBGYN provider to serve as their primary care provider. But OBs aren’t currently empowered with the resources and tools to provide comprehensive care, and the financial incentives aren’t aligned to support that level of care. We have the opportunity to alter these realities.
Many experts believe that OBGYNs are in the best position to provide holistic care to women.At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that this shift would require changes to clinician training, payment models and use of the right technologies.
There is a real need for a care model that has continuity and comprehensively supports women through each age and stage, from family planning to menopause and beyond. With many women already viewing their OBGYN as their de facto medical home, it isn’t a far leap to imagine these clinicians operating as the hub in a hub and spoke model, where women get the care they need when they need it from various specialists under the purview of an already trusted provider.
As I mentioned above, we will see much better digital connectivity and personalization for patients using technology. We will align all stakeholders so that high quality care is appropriately rewarded via value-based models. These two shifts help set the stage for a whole health model for women, quarterbacked by the OBGYN.
When the dust settles from these seismic shifts, we will find ourselves in the midst of a new era for women’s health. And we will see dramatic improvements in access, equity, experience and outcomes. The time to prepare for this future is now. All three of these trends were set in motion many years ago, and they are coming together right before our eyes. Payers and providers who want to be part of the revolution need to be thinking strategically about how they can move at the speed of change. That pace is quickening with every passing day.
About Leah Sparks
Leah Sparks is a Rock Health Board Member and the CEO & Founder of Wildflower Health, a decade-year-old maternal health platform on a mission to transform women’s health. Leah has nearly 20 years of experience building innovative healthcare businesses in both venture-backed companies and Fortune 50 corporations.