UnitedHealth's Witty describes Optum's ambitions for 'seamless' consumer health experience

NEW YORK CITY—UnitedHealth’s Optum is working to leverage its already massive care services and technology infrastructure to create a "seamless" healthcare experience for consumers at the local level.

Speaking at the Forbes Healthcare Summit Wednesday evening, Optum CEO and newly appointed UnitedHealth Group President Andrew Witty said the company is building a digital platform to connect directly with patients and consumers. The company is rolling the experience out "city by city," Witty said.

"We're bringing together all of the elements of Optum into an ecosystem at the local level," Witty said. "We can smooth out the time for patients to get the kind of care they need from the specialist they need it from."

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Optum is also working to provide physicians with data and insights to enhance their decision-making capabilities.

Optum Health has more than 46,000 primary care providers either employed or contracted to work with the company. It has a network of hundreds of primary care practices, surgery centers and urgent care clinics, and those facilities are being "wired" together to provide physicians with health data and insights, Witty said. That allows Optum to provide local physicians with advice based on its massive stores of data and analytics capabilities and give physicians better access to innovation.

"We see primary care as being a key anchor point of the whole healthcare system. A small fraction of healthcare costs occur in primary care, but the quality of the decisions determines what comes next. If primary care does a better job of controlling and preventing disease, it can help to delay or avoid more expensive costs down the road," he said.

Optum is UnitedHealth's pharmacy benefit management (PBM) and care services group and continues to be the biggest driver of the company's growth. Optum revenue is projected to have increased by 11% from 2018 to 2019, earning UnitedHealth $112 billion in revenue compared to $101 billion in 2018, company executives said during UnitedHealth's investor conference Tuesday.

UnitedHealth executives said Optum is expected to make up 50.5% of the company's total after-tax operating earnings this year.

Witty came to Optum in 2018 from British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, where he was CEO for almost 10 years. He was tapped to be president of UnitedHealth earlier this month and still serves as CEO of Optum. Optum consists of three key businesses: Optum Health, OptumRx—a large PBM—and OptumInsight, which provides analytics, technology and consulting services.

Optum Health is the fastest-growing part of the company, projected to bring in about $30 billion in revenue, Witty said.

OptumInsight houses 200 million data records and 100 million clinical records and powers artificial intelligence and machine learning platforms for UnitedHealth Group.

The company plans to ramp up its capital investments in technology R&D and data analytics capabilities, Witty said. And UnitedHealth's free cash flow outlook indicates the potential for more acquisitions.

RELATED: UnitedHealth projects major revenue boost in 2020 on the back of continued Optum growth

The company predicts cash flows from operations will likely range from $19 billion to $19.5 billion in 2020.

"Within Optum, we will invest in our ambulatory care networks and clinics. We'll invest in technology platforms, in artificial intelligence and machine learning. We'll invest in genomics. We want to increase our data capabilities," he said.

It ties into UnitedHealth's focus on improving the healthcare experience by combining digital tools with the physical face-to-face medical practice, he said.

"The opportunity to bring that connectivity into the care journey is extraordinary. We need to think about what that system feels like for patients. The experience for the patient will be, ultimately, much simpler, before they arrive at the doctor’s office and less stressful once they are there. And it will be less of a hangover for the patient once they leave," he said.

He added, "That's what drew me to UnitedHealth; I don’t see other places that have this portfolio of capabilities at this scale to make an impact on one patient at a time in large parts of the U.S."