RBMA PaRADigm 2017: Ben Wanamaker on some of healthcare's biggest issues—and how to fix them

Healthcare is in desperate need of a change, Ben Wanamaker explained during his keynote address Monday morning at RBMA PaRADigm 2017 in Chicago. Consumer costs are on the rise, pricing for basic services is widely inconsistent and the government is spending more and more tax dollars on policies such as social security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“I’m not making policy statements about which political party does it better or worse or even what the right solution is for this,” said Wanamaker, director of corporate strategy for Walmart. “But from a purely macroeconomic perspective, if consumers are mad and the government is broke, something’s going to give.”

Wanamaker said he remains optimistic that the current climate in healthcare will create opportunities for a new wave of innovation. But to get there, the industry must realize that consumers in healthcare want the same things as other consumers: They want great customer service, they want their expectations to be met, they want their lives to be easier and they want great value.

Wanamaker also touched on the importance of empathy and seeing healthcare delivery from different perspectives. Something might make sense from the physician’s perspective, for instance, but does it make sense from the patient’s? He then pointed out that patients' priorities can change depending on why they are seeking care in the first place, yet many hospitals are designed to treat all patients the same when they arrive for care.

“You have a lot of different inputs coming into the general hospital business model,” he said. “An undiagnosed neurological condition, the flu, routine hernia repair and regular radiation therapy are all coming through the same front door. It’s very difficult to tell when they’re coming, how they’re coming or how many of them are coming.”

This creates a significant challenge for those hospitals—providing the best possible care for a large net of patients in very different situations. It’s such a tough challenge, in fact, that hospitals can’t control costs and “everyone pays for a bit of everything done in that hospital, whether you need it or not.”

Wanamaker brought this point home by sharing a personal story about the time his pregnant wife was admitted to a hospital because they thought she was in labor. She wasn’t, it turned out, but the hospital insisted on a stress test being run so they could have a code to justify letting her go. Wanamaker argued with the doctors, saying the test obviously wasn’t needed, but his wife eventually calmed him down and they agreed.  

“We went back two days later and had a happy, healthy baby,” he said. "And about six weeks later, we got a bill for $850 for this stress test we didn’t want to pay for. To make a long story short, we had a big fight and, after threatening to call a reporter at the Boston Herald, they agreed to waive the charge.”

Wanamaker concluded his presentation by examining why consumerism must be a sail for businesses and not an anchor. Truly understand your job instead of just assuming you know it based on demographics and develop a business model that nails that job. “And if it isn’t a business model you have right now,” he said, “you may have to start a new business."