StartUp Health Festival Recap: The Consumer is the Biggest Disruptor


Healthcare's visionaries foresee a consumer-centric industry where the art of listening to what people want and need drives transformation.

Jacqueline DiChiara

9 min read

The 38th annual J. P. Morgan (JPM) Healthcare Conference, held over four days last week in San Francisco, attracted 9,000+ attendees. Leaders from across sectors convened to discuss the current and future state of the healthcare market, devise innovative strategies, and learn about the newest breakthroughs shaping the greater industry. In short, it was a whirlwind week.

Taking place during JPM week was the StartUp Health Festival where thousands of innovators, executives, investors, and industry leaders convened to discuss some of the biggest challenges in healthcare and how to overcome them.   

Designing with Consumers at the Center

To do our best capturing the week’s biggest highlights, our Oliver Wyman Health Editor, Jacqueline DiChiara, was in attendance at the StartUp Health Festival to synthesize the onstage conversations and conduct interviews with dozens of health transformers, including bold startup founders, fearless female chief executive officers, cutting-edge physician leaders, brave patient advocates, and savvy tech visionaries. Throughout our discussions, one theme kept coming up time and time again: the importance of listening to patients and consumers to remain competitive, drive meaningful innovations, and spark big change over the next decade and beyond. Here are just a few takeaways we captured about the need for consumer-centric, patient-first care delivery:

1. Implement Digital Tech Solutions That Address All Populations

Chief Executive Executive and Founder of Unaliwear, Jean Anne Booth, came out of retirement to start her company because of her mom – a cognitively capable but physically frail woman, who like many older patients, fiercely valued her freedom. Unaliwear's voice-controlled Kanega watch-cell phone combo helps seniors live with more independence. For her, the idea of wearing a “stigmatizing” pendant to track if she’d fallen, for instance, was something she’d never do, she said, showing us her pink, sparkly watch – one she said older patients want to wear compared to traditional life alert devices because they don’t, well, look like standard life alert devices for senior citizens.

“That just telegraphs to everybody, ‘I’m old and I lose control over my own life,’” said Jean.

Her mom’s voice ended up representing the first 100 folks who came through their focus groups as Unaliwear defined what to build. Along the way, one key feature Jean wanted the Unailwear watch to include – cellular capability – was one a large venture capitalist told her consumers like her mom didn’t want.

“That’s not true,” Jean said, who advocated for leaders to listen to consumers' voices more closely. “If you give people a way to be safe wherever they go, they’ll be active and participatory in life, extend their lives, and have better quality lives.”

2. Machines Should Augment, Not Replace, Human Interaction

Along the same lines as Jean, Marty Makary, MD, MPH, Physician, Editor-in-Chief of MedPage Today, Oliver Wyman advisor, and author of The Price We Pay, discussed the idea of senior citizens and social isolation during a fireside chat. He emphasized, “The biggest problem faced by seniors today is undoubtedly [loneliness]. This is something public health is not addressing.”

"There are 600 million seniors across the globe that will rely on another human’s observation skills to keep them well. This is not possible."

Indeed, it was argued widely last week that the greater role of artificial intelligence, from hip looking smartwatches and well beyond, is helping patients, especially older patient populations who are lonely and unable or unwilling to advocate for themselves, do so. Artificial intelligence may be the bridge between having a social need and having that need met with grace and care.

“There are 600 million seniors across the globe that will rely on another human’s observation skills to keep them well. This is not possible,”  Jerry Wilmink, Chief Business Officer at CarePredict, a company that’s developed a wearable to monitor depression levels in seniors, told Oliver Wyman. There aren’t enough caregivers globally to care for those in need, he said. When there are, most aren’t physically close by. Most caregivers, he emphasized, are about 280 miles away from their loved one.

Jerry said seniors who are depressed, for instance, will often repeat patterns that are easily noticeable if they had a human observer or a human caregiver at the house present. “They’ll typically skip meals, sleep longer than their baseline, and participate in less physical activity. They’ll also spend more time in the dark or in darker rooms in the home and even in their bedroom, which they won’t leave as often,” said Jerry.

“We need machines to augment the caregiver into our systems, kind of like an extra pair of eyes and ears to give them information to provide better details on what to do with the insights achieved,” he said of where the healthcare industry must head next.

3. Empower Patients with Real-Life Tools

Aside from talk of technology at the StartUp Health Festival, there was also buzz about the importance of face-to-face interaction with patients and real conversations about gritty and raw personal issues. The ideal patient experience of tomorrow must be more focused on building relationships with providers, doctors, and caregivers who shape someone’s care journey around social determinants. So said Andrea Wilson Woods, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Cancer U, to Oliver Wyman. Andrea started her company to empower cancer patients after losing her sister to liver cancer. Her sister went right into chemo without knowing clinical trial options existed. Andrea believes the latter option may have been a better choice for her sister, but at the time, this wasn’t a known option to consider.

“When a doctor says, ‘You have cancer,’ the next words out of his or her mouth should not be about patient education (there’s already too much patient education out there) but about how to get the patient more involved in their diagnosis,” said Andrea. “Instead of just telling patients what to do, tell them what to do with the information you provide them, what questions they need to be asking, and what things they need to be thinking about.”

Andrea said the cancer patients she works with at Cancer U are often very clear about their diagnoses and their disease stages. But, they often grapple with greater questions the healthcare system generally doesn’t address. Questions like: “Should I still take this medication even though it’s ruining my life?”

“I always ask patients the same question: ‘Is it more important how long you live or how you feel?’ Neither answer is wrong. As soon as you can answer that question, it will help you determine the rest of your treatment. It’s not easy for people to hear, but it gives people clarity,” she said.

“When I asked one major athlete diagnosed with cancer who could now barely walk that question, he said, ‘Well, I don’t want to die.” I told him, ‘You know what? We’re all going to die. Are you happy? Are you spending time with your wife? Do you sleep well?”  He said, ‘No.’  He had no idea there were other options besides the medicine he was taking,” she explained.

4. Care Through Personalization

This idea about care becoming less about treatment and more about personalization was echoed by Ashesh Patel, Chief Executive Officer of Ashana Health. He told Oliver Wyman that the physical therapy and occupational therapy space, for instance, is one where patients lose motivation to get well.

“There’s really no innovation in the space. Patients are using traditional equipment they find mundane. Their treatment is repetitive. They lose engagement very quickly,” he stated. He envisions an industry where patients talk to others also struggling to adhere to their treatment plan to better understand the root cause of why they’re unmotivated to continue their treatment plans. 

“That’s our vision – engage people with other individuals going through something similar and have them form a relationship," he emphasized.

Why do patients not adhere to their care plans? Said Andrew Garza, Lifestores Healthcare Chief Operating Officer, to Oliver Wyman, people are hard-wired to choose the path with least resistance.

“If somebody told me, ‘You must take this medication three times a day for two months,’ I’d be like, ‘I don’t feel like it today. I forgot.’  So unless there’s some urgent need for you to do it right away, people tend to take the easiest path, even if there’s a long-term benefit.”

“We’re still just animals. We still need that human-to-human connection.” 

As Jeff Wandzura, Board Member and Specialty Pharmacy Advisor, Curatio, also explained to Oliver Wyman, offering patients social support and peer mentors is key to improving care outcomes. Jeff advocated for what he called “digitizing the patient” to create new patient adherence solutions.

“Based on a number of different attributes like the patient’s age, the therapy they’re on, the stage of their disease, their hobbies, interests, or any signaling type of variable that might lead them to have a more meaningful connection with people in a community, each factor shapes day-to-day type conversations you can have with people rather than be part of a large group where you fail to have that intimacy, connection, and accountability to change behavior,” he said.  “What patients really crave, is an intimate connection with other patients.”

“Somebody’s walked in their shoes previously to help them, guide them through the journey and give them the support, encouragement, and guidance they need that might not be part of their typical care plan,” he said.

But one of the most simple yet most powerful lessons we learned at the StartUp Health Festival? Even the greatest medical app, telemedicine, or virtual care option the industry has ever seen may not be enough to care for patients. As Brand Newland, PharmD, MBA, Chief Executive Officer of Goldfinch Health, told Oliver Wyman, “We’re still just animals. We still need that human-to-human connection.” 

5. Patient Advocacy Literally Took Center Stage

Not only was patient-centeredness a highlight at StartUp Health, but a highlight at the greater J. P. Morgan Healthcare Week. Jennifer Horonjeff, PhD, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Savvy Cooperative, patient advocate, and one of Entrepreneur Magazine's “50 Most Daring Entrepreneurs” was an arguable leader of the patient-focused movement, for example, for choosing to show up to her panel wearing a hospital gown.

This decision, she told Oliver Wyman, was on a whim. Jennifer, who grew up with chronic illness and had a brain tumor removed, said the gown represents an experience many patients know well: “We take patients out of the comfort of their home or their community, put them in a cold room, tell them to take their clothes off, and then somebody else in a position of power comes in and tells them what to do. That’s our system,” she said. At events like these, many executives, she said, may forget that we are all patients first and foremost. Jennifer pushed for more patient-centered perspectives to be integrated across healthcare’s design innovation process.

“I was making the point [by wearing a hospital gown] that we often slap patients with the term ‘noncompliant’ for not following their care plans. They’re using the tools we want, but we didn’t design them with patients in mind,” she explained.

“A lot of healthcare innovations are ‘B2B2C’, but we forget the ‘2C’ climate. We’re just doing the ‘B2B’ and asking payers, providers, and health systems, ‘What do we need to do to get you to pay for this?’” she asked. “Many people on the professional side who build and research around patients are trying to make a difference, but just guess at what patients actually need.”

“I believe people truly want to do the right thing, but they lose sight of this. If we can work together, everybody wins: companies win, investors, and patients – who should be the priority.”

Editor’s Note: Next week look for reflections on the broader JPM Healthcare Week from Sam Glick, who attended the investor conference and other surrounding events.

  • Jacqueline DiChiara