Peer power: Now is the time for healthcare to tap the sharing economy

When Robin Chase co-founded Zipcar in 2000, she saw an opportunity to turn a “world of scarcity” into a world of abundance. Her vision was simple: Make renting a car as easy and convenient as getting cash from an ATM.

In her book, Peers Inc, Chase describes the sharing economy as a historic opportunity to “combine the best of people power with the best of corporate power.” Zipcar tapped the excess capacity of idle cars and made it more attractive for consumers to rent than to own. The result was fewer cars on the road, less congestion, and lower carbon emissions.

Robin went on to build Zipcar into a billion-dollar company. In the process, she discovered the power of the sharing economy to unlock new ways of creating value, not just for companies, but for “peers” – those who actively participate in the sharing economy by offering rides, renting out rooms, and sharing their talents.

A new sharing economy partnership is born

Last week, Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) announced a partnership with ride-hailing company Lyft to similarly unlock new ways of creating value. In this case, offering its health plan members “no-cost” transportation to their doctor’s office.

In its statement announcing the partnership, BCBS made it clear that the goal of the program is to improve patient outcomes and lower costs. At its core, this was a data-driven decision.

It turns out that transportation barriers are a big deal. More than 3.6 million Americans either miss or delay a scheduled appointment every year as a result of not having access to a car or mass transit. That’s a lot of missed opportunities to engage with patients before an illness gets worse and requires more and costlier intervention.

Dr. Trent Haywood, the association’s chief medical officer, put it this way: “We are committed to addressing issues like transportation that are inextricably linked to health outcomes, yet can’t be tackled through health care resources alone.”


Peer power benefits all parties involved

In partnering with Lyft, BCBS is tapping into Chase’s “peer power.” It’s about leveraging the sharing economy to make the world a better place. Let’s consider how it works in this case.

First, it’s a clear win for patients, many of whom are stuck in transportation deserts and are already saddled with high out-of-pocket costs. For them, a free ride to-and-from their doctor’s office isn’t just convenient; it’s a way to trim costs and get the care they need.

Second, it’s a win for Lyft drivers. They are the “peers” who Chase sees fueling the sharing economy. With surplus time on their hands and room to spare in their car, they’re able to earn extra spending money while also helping neighbors in need.

Third, it’s a big win for BCBS, which, like other health plans, is struggling to manage the shift from fee-for-service to value-based care and the added risk that goes along with it. Getting patients to their doctors is likely to yield a net reduction in the total cost of care.

And last but not least, it’s a win for the healthcare system as a whole. As Lyft’s president, John Zimmer, said: “This type of cross-industry partnership is a critical way to help make our communities stronger and families healthier.”


Peers in healthcare have more to share than rides

The Lyft and BCBS partnership illustrates two things – one that’s fairly obvious and one that’s anything but.

First, the obvious: This is a logical step a payer can take to advance the Triple Aim, which is all about a better patient experience, improved population health, and lower costs. Those aren’t responsibilities that should be relegated solely to physicians and other care providers. Forward-thinking payers like BCBS get this concept and are stepping up.

But there’s something subtler at work here, and that’s the role of peers in the sharing economy. It turns out they, too, can play a pivotal role in advancing the Triple Aim.

Today, it’s a peer providing a free ride to a doctor’s appointment. Tomorrow, it could be a peer with diabetes teaching a newly-diagnosed patient how to test their blood-sugar and use a continuous glucose monitor.

To some degree, this kind of peer support in healthcare is nothing new. Community health workers have been around for 60 years and are widely considered an integral part of the healthcare workforce. There’s plenty of evidence that shows just how valuable peers are in helping others manage chronic diseases.

And sharing isn’t a new concept either. As economist Arun Sundararajan points out in his book, The Sharing Economy, giving someone a ride or running an errand for a homebound neighbor isn’t exactly revolutionary.


Bringing new opportunities to the sharing economy

What is new is how the sharing economy harnesses platforms like Lyft, Upwork, and Task Rabbit to mediate the exchange of value among its participants. As Sundararajan noted, “…today’s sharing platforms have brought these informal exchanges into the mainstream economy, creating service providers who are ‘in between’ personal and professional…(e.g., a lawyer renting out a cottage on Airbnb or an actor driving a Lyft on a part-time basis).”

What is also new is the opportunity health insurers like BCBS have to leverage “peer power” in ways that go well beyond ride-sharing.

One of the newest entrants in the sharing economy is WEGO Health Experts, a platform that enables healthcare organizations to hire patient experts on demand. These are individuals who are similarly in between personal and professional personas. Most are managing chronic or complex health conditions for themselves or a family member. They are the biggest consumers of healthcare and know the system inside and out.

But their patient journey is just part of their story. They are also professionals with backgrounds in business, technology, marketing, nonprofit management, and even healthcare. Many work part-time so they can focus on managing their health, which makes them ideal candidates for freelance consulting projects that don’t require a full-time commitment.

Take Leanna Mullen, a videographer and video editor for the Egg Harbor Township School District in New Jersey. A Google Certified Trainer with a Masters in Instructional Technology, Leanna has deep expertise in social media and project management. She also has Gaucher’s disease, a rare genetic disorder known to cause fatigue, anemia, and enlargement of the liver and spleen.

In her spare time, Mullen is an active contributor to several online communities dedicated to people affected by Gaucher’s disease. She is recognized by her peers as a patient expert – someone they can turn to for support and guidance on ways to cope with and manage their condition.

Mullen’s outsized influence in the Gaucher’s community makes her a powerful asset to healthcare companies seeking to engage patients with the disease. So, when a Chicago-based strategic consulting firm needed to pull together a panel of Gaucher’s patients for a research initiative, they hired her to find, screen, and schedule the patients for one-on-one interviews.

In the end, “peer power” enabled Mullen to leverage her trusted connections with other patients and assemble the panel of 24 participants the consulting firm needed, in about half the time and at 60% less cost than traditional channels.

And here again, it was a win for Mullen, who earned extra income that helps her cover a high deductible health plan and out-of-pocket costs for her medications. It was a win for the consulting firm that needed a quick and cost-effective way to engage with patients affected by a rare condition. And it was a win for the firm’s client, which is seeking to develop new therapies targeting people with Gaucher’s disease.


The future of healthcare is bright with the sharing economy

Health plans like BCBS can take a cue from this example. It illustrates one of countless opportunities to think differently about how to tap peer power and the sharing economy to advance population health.

There are thousands of patient experts like Mullen who can be hired on demand to bring their skills, expertise, and influence to bear on the needs of healthcare companies seeking to improve outcomes, reduce costs, and improve the patient experience.

The BCBS partnership with Lyft is laudable, but the healthcare system has even more to gain by putting patient experts like Mullen in the driver’s seat.

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This post was also published on May 19, 2017 at Tincture.



David GoldsmithDavid has spent his career working at the intersection of technology and social change. Following his wife’s diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, he became a passionate advocate for patient empowerment and connected health. As chief strategy officer, David works to identify new ways for WEGO Health to bring meaningful value to our patient network, as well as to health care organizations and life sciences companies that can benefit from patient leaders. David is a Healthbox mentor and has served as an advisor to Stanford University’s MedicineX conference and the SXSW Healthcare Accelerator. David lives in Salt Lake City where he can be found skiing, mountain-biking and hiking with his Labrador retriever, Izzy.


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