Witty: Why UnitedHealth's innovation strategy starts with breaking down silos

Even as the healthcare system drives toward innovation, it remains too "fragmented" to achieve sustained and substantial improvements, said UnitedHealth Group CEO Andrew Witty.

Witty said the idea of breaking down silos and integrating disparate parts of the system is a key tenet that undergirds UnitedHealth's own push for innovation. Witty, speaking at the Forbes Healthcare Summit Thursday morning, said the healthcare giant is "fortunate" to have two platform businesses that mesh well.

UnitedHealth Group is the parent company of UnitedHealthcare, the nation's largest commercial insurer, and Optum, an increasingly diverse firm that includes a slew of physician services, pharmacy benefit management and data analytics.

head shot photo of Andrew Witty
Andrew Witty (UnitedHealth Group)

"I think one of our hypotheses here is we need more integration of those components," Witty said.

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UnitedHealth's chief has beat this drum before. During an appearance at the BofA Securities Healthcare Conference in the spring, he said he sees particular "untapped potential" in Optum's varied business lines. Areas that have been highlighted as ripe for collaboration include value-based care and health technology.

On UnitedHealth Group's first-quarter earnings call, Witty described the two segments as "distinct and complementary organizations."

One of the first major announcements in this collaborative effort was UnitedHealth's new virtual-first health plan, called NavigateNOW. The plan, which is available to select UnitedHealthcare employer clients in nine markets, was developed alongside the Optum team and harnesses its telehealth services.

Members will have access to, for example, a 24/7 Optum care team and $0 for certain virtual and in-person services.

Witty said during the Forbes event that the new plan design is a "centerpiece" of UnitedHealthcare's employer offerings this year. This plan, he said, allows UnitedHealth to respond more nimbly to patient choice as well as to meet their individual preferences on how they receive care.

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For one, many people began to use telehealth services during the pandemic, but few would choose to fully give up high-touch, in-person care, he said. A plan design like this allows people to choose the care setting and journey they prefer.

"It really speaks in a direction we want to go, which is to be much more consumer orientated," Witty said.

In addition to addressing the fragmentation present in healthcare, Witty said UnitedHealth is thinking about innovation in a big picture way. The company isn't looking to develop a single, new gadget but rather to develop solutions that work together in a broader ecosystem.

That way, members can tap into a suite of solutions designed to work in tandem to deliver better outcomes. This approach also allows for more aligned incentives for providers and other stakeholders, Witty said.

"We know it's sustainable—that's really the key to our strategy," he said.