There was a time when the American steel industry seemed invincible. The American automotive industry looked rock-solid. American consumer electronics industry seemed untouchable. In every one of these cases, global competition changed the game forever. Will the same happen to health care in the United States?
By almost any measure, American health care costs are out of control but the system refuses to change. What if you could provide excellent care at ultra-low prices at a location close to the U.S.? That’s what Narayana Health (NH) did in 2014 by opening a hospital in the Cayman Islands — Health City Cayman Islands (HCCI) — which was close to America but outside its regulatory ambit.
As we explain in Reverse Innovation in Health Care, Narayana Health’s founder, Dr. Devi Shetty, wanted to disrupt U.S. health care with this venture, set up in partnership with America’s largest not-for-profit hospital network, Ascension. “For the world to change, America has to change,” Shetty told us. “So it’s important that American policy makers and American think-tanks can look at a model that costs a fraction of what they pay and see that it has similarly good outcomes.”
Narayana Health brought innovative practices honed in India to HCCI to offer first-rate care for 25-40% of U.S. prices. To be sure, this was not as cheap as NH’s services in India, where prices were 2-5% of U.S. prices, but HCCI’s prices are still a whopping 60-75% cheaper than U.S. prices, and even at those prices it could be extremely profitable as patient volume picked up. Three years after its launch, HCCI had seen about 30,000 outpatients and over 3,500 inpatients. It had performed almost 2,000 procedures, including 759 cath-lab procedures.
Despite low prices, HCCI’s outcomes were excellent with a mortality rate of zero — true value-based care. HCCI is accredited by Joint Commission International, another endorsement for quality. Patient testimonials were equally glowing. A vascular surgeon from Massachusetts, on vacation at Cayman Islands, underwent open-heart surgery at HCCI following a heart attack. He had this to say: “I see plenty of patients post cardiac surgery. My care and recovery (at HCCI) is as good or better than what I have seen. The model here is what the U.S. health-care system is striving to get to.”
The Cayman facility achieved ultra-low prices by adopting many of the frugal practices transferred from India, a case of reverse innovation:
The HCCI model is potentially very disruptive to U.S. health care. Even with zero copays and deductibles and free travel for the patient and a chaperone for 1-2 weeks, insurers would save a lot of money.
U.S. insurers and employers have watched HCCI with interest but so far HCCI is not one of the options available to their patients. But this is bound to change, especially as HCCI builds a track record and health care costs continue to soar in the U.S. A team of American doctors that visited HCCI came away with this warning: “The Cayman Health City might be one of the disruptors that finally pushes the overly expensive U.S. system to innovate.”
We contend that U.S. health care providers should pay attention to HCCI for two reasons. First, they can learn from HCCI how to provide high-quality care while dramatically lowering costs. Second, they should consider opening similar near-shore facilities to treat some of their own patients and to serve as a lab for process innovations.
Bottom line: U.S. health care providers can afford to ignore experiments like HCCI at their own peril. Robert Pearl, CEO of Permanante Medical Group and a clinical professor of surgery at Stanford University put it well: “Ask most Americans about obtaining their health care outside of the United States, and they respond with disdain and negativity. In their mind, the quality and medical expertise available elsewhere is second-rate. Of course, that’s exactly what Yellow Cab thought about Uber, Kodak thought about digital photography, General Motors thought about Toyota, and Borders thought about Amazon.”
Hopefully U.S. health care will not underestimate the disruptive threat from new entrants.
Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe Distinguished Professor of Management at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. He is a coauthor, with Ravi Ramamurti, of Reverse Innovation in Health Care: How to Make Value-Based Delivery Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).
Ravi Ramamurti is the University Distinguished Professor of International Business and Strategy and the director of the Center for Emerging Markets at Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. He is a coauthor, with Vijay Govindarajan, of Reverse Innovation in Health Care: How to Make Value-Based Delivery Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).
This article originally appeared on HBR.org and is being brought to you by Medtronic.