Health Care Investors Predict 10 Ways the Industry Will Change in 2020

As we near the end of 2019, it is time for us to look ahead and share what we believe 2020 has in store for the health care ecosystem. But first, let’s look back and assess how we did with our 2019 predictions

Overall, we got about half correct (five or six out of 10 depending on whether you count Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina’s attempt to consolidate with Cambia).  What we got right was growth of Accountable Care Organizations, more digital health consolidation, dialysis disrupted, dramatic growth in telemedicine, and breakthroughs in DNA sequencing platforms. 

We were wrong about electronic health records (EHRs)—both about any meaningful improvement in the UI and that the government would break the ice on interoperability. 

While there has been lots of talk about both of these topics, we do not think much progress was made in 2019. We were equally wrong about pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) disruption, with lots of talk but no action after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) withdrew their proposal to eliminate drug rebates. 

We do think interoperability and PBM changes will happen but, like most changes in our ecosystem, they will take longer to come to fruition. We were also wrong about insuretech getting tarnished as start-ups, or at least start-up valuations, continue to do very well. 

As we look ahead to 2020, here are 10 predictions that are shaping our thinking:

1. Turns Out “Growth at All Costs” Has a Limit

After the debacle of WeWork’s unsuccessful IPO, SoftBank’s subsequent $8.9 billion bailout (Too Big to Fail?) and many formerly high-flying private companies trading below their 2019 IPO prices, growth investors are going to become more discerning regarding eventual, or even near term, financial independence. 

To be clear, there will still be way too much money available given the low rates of return in other asset classes, but that sea of cash seeking a home will focus on high growth, high gross margin businesses that could be cash flow positive if necessary. This could push more mature companies to exit (whether M&A or IPO) since the private markets will no longer be so permissive. 

2. Cancer Immunotherapy Is Recognized—As Crowded

After multiple years of focus and investment from biotech investors, the market for the next blockbuster immunotherapy runs dry of differentiated ideas and the current batch of immune oncology programs starts to look incremental, therefore not revolutionary enough to command the high prices required for their production. As a result, investors’ cash rotates toward other areas like CNS and autoimmune disorders.

3. Medicare Advantage is Everyone’s Favorite. Uh Oh…

CMS will continue to make Medicare Advantage (MA) a better deal for new Medicare beneficiaries. We think CMS will continue raising rates for MA, thereby allowing plans to lower cost sharing as well as offer more generous drug, dental, and vision benefits.  

MA plans will continue to differentiate from traditional Medicare—offering patients better experiences like telemedicine, text-based care interactions, and help with social determinants of health. 

The ensuing growth in MA membership will drive even more investment in MA oriented start-ups, most of which will succumb to poor execution compared to the large incumbents that receive most of their net Income from MA (so they really care).

4. Data Privacy Taken Seriously

Hospitals have long viewed their medical records as gold waiting to be mined.  For the last few years, a slew of start-ups and Google have come to health systems offering to anonymize, organize, and sell their data to pharma. 

The hitch is, it’s very hard to anonymize data and most of the time this was done without patient consent, so a backlash around violating patient privacy is coming. These debates will be intensified by the hunger of AI for large datasets and, we think, the discovery of many examples of patients being re-identified.

5. More Biomedical Philanthropy

Perhaps a by-product of the Warren and Sanders campaigns, the decade long bull market or more likely turning 35 years old with bad knees… more billionaires, especially from the recent generation of tech companies, will follow the lead of Chan-Zuckerberg and Sean Parker and set up biomedical research institutes. Successful entrepreneurs will be entranced by the potential of using new tools and computing power to tackle biology and cure disease. 

6. AI Begins to Prove Useful

After several years of pure hype, beyond being able to recognize images, AI will begin to become useful clinically. 

While we remain equally excited about non-clinical use cases like more efficient billing, coding, credentialing, and provider directories, we think that AI use cases to support biomedical research and clinical decision support will begin to become useful and practical. 

We also think that AI’s insatiable appetite for data will be rate limiting for most clinical use cases since the training data is contaminated with medical errors and bias.     

7. More Skeletons Come Out, a la uBiome

As investors pivot towards more rigorous diligence processes, we think it is inevitable that cut corners, made by startups to grow faster, will come back to haunt them—tales of artificial user growth, phantom unit economics, and regulatory disregard will lead to hand wringing and schadenfreude.

8. No Disruption Bogeyman from Big Tech

Despite a steady stream of breathless articles about Amazon and Haven, Google, Facebook, and Apple disrupting health care, we think that they will shift much of that attention to other things in 2020. 

Next year big tech is going to deprioritize health care disruption to deal with crises in public trust, privacy, and other consumer technology opportunities. For all the talk about building consumer health products and disrupting PBMs and payers, we think the best we can hope for are continued small experiments and acquihire acquisitions. 

9. Election Year Policy Paralysis

While disappointing, we do not believe Congress is going to be able to cooperate long enough to solve problems like surprise billing, make any meaningful progress on drug prices, or to improve the Affordable Care Act. 

With a presidential election and impeachment overshadowing everything, neither side will want the other to declare any sort of victory. To the extent policy is developed, the action will happen at the State level (which we think is interesting).

10. Primary Care Physicians (PCPs) Break Free from Hospitals

2020 will be the year the PCPs wake up and realize that they can earn more and be happier working independently of health systems. 

As a result, payers will try to tempt PCPs to break free by offering them higher reimbursement, start-up capital, and even subsidized office space and technology. 

We also think that we will begin to see a reprise of the 1990s with lower margin health systems tiring of losing money on their employed doctors and offer to sell them back their practices for peanuts.

We hope that this gave you a glimpse into our minds and piqued your curiosity. We look forward to seeing what happens. Until then, wishing you all a happy holiday season and 2020.

Bob Kocher and Bryan Roberts are both health care investors and partners at the venture capital firm Venrock.

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