Will ‘Digital-First’ Health Plans Usher in Telehealth At-Scale? | Danielle Russella, American Well

Jessica DaMassa of WTF Health interviewed American Well President and GM of Health Plan Solutions Danielle Russella at HLTH 2019. Russella weighed in on a number of topics including how “digital-first” health plans will impact telehealth, the state of play of telehealth/health plan relations, and rumors of an IPO.

First, Russella says that health plans are in American Well’s roots. But “it’s been an uphill battle, not because health plans didn’t think this was another mode of delivering care, but provider adoption, consumer adoption, rights services … How do we do this? How do we do it well? What are the recipes for success? These things took a really long time to figure out.”

However, the last couple of years have seen a lot of good data about telehealth, particularly around the return on investment, which, when combined with cost savings and convenience, is starting to shift the balance in favor of telehealth.

“When health plans began to realize there are a lot of things they could and should be doing online, they’re all building digital front doors,” Russella said. “The idea that they could incorporate telehealth to meet members where they already are—this bigger, grander version of a ‘digital first’ strategy, if you will—is where health plans really started to say, ‘Okay, this has got to be part of my strategy.’”

American Well has grown more in the last two years than it did in the previous eight, in terms of utilization, adoption, awareness, and growth. “Health plans are huge drivers of that. At the end of the day, they have millions and millions of members, and so finally, telehealth strategy is top five around the C-suite when they’re thinking about what they’re going to do in incorporating digital health into their overall strategies,” Russella said.

Health plans still struggle with risk, though. Medicaid and Medicare are huge populations for health plans across the U.S., and both are high cost drivers. Medicare has been more open to telehealth, but “I think health plans are still figuring out good ways to engage with seniors, appropriate and meaningful ways to engage with Medicaid…so finding the ‘secret sauce’ of how to get into communities and increase engagement with them” is a challenge.

What’s the “secret sauce” at American Well? “If we are health care pioneers, and trust is a humongous factor, I and the founders of the company, and American Well as a whole, we pride ourselves on the partners that we have,” Russella said. “Trust is a really important element in what we wind up doing, and I think it is a part of why someone wants to become part of our ecosystem.”

Responding to rumors about an American Well IPO, Russella hedged her bets. “Any high-growth company—and we’re fortunate; we’ve been on a high-growth trajectory for quite some time—like anything, it’s a potential strategy. I think there are a lot of other things we might consider. At the end of the day, we want to add value to what we’re doing. Organically, we’re growing, and we’re going to continue to do that. If [an IPO] is a viable strategy, I certainly think we wouldn’t be ruling that out.”

Watch the full interview here.