A newly launched venture collaborative in Chicago aims to bring together health systems, corporate partners, innovative startups, and community resources to tackle health inequity.
A lot of the conversation in healthcare innovation these days centers around new partnerships to address health equity. In Chicago, a unique venture collaborative is forging those partnerships between health systems and community organizations, while closing gaps in care that contribute to wasteful healthcare spending.
Chicago ARC (Accelerate, Redesign, Collaborate) was launched in June 2022 on a model designed by Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, a global leader in transforming healthcare delivery through innovation. Chicago ARC’s goal is to create programs that bring together health systems and the communities they serve and take on barriers to accessing healthcare.
“These challenges have always been going on,” says Kate Merton, PhD, Chicago ARC’s executive director. “There’s no one I know who doesn’t want to solve that. It’s getting down to the devil in the details … that takes time and effort.”
Chicago ARC’s healthcare partners are the University of Chicago Medical Center (UChicago Medicine) and the Sinai Chicago health system. The two health systems signed memorandums of understanding in June with the new organization, agreeing to support innovation that addresses such issues as maternal and child health, chronic disease management, rural and urban healthcare disparities, senior services, home-based healthcare, and behavioral health.
Kate Merton, PhD, executive director of Chicago ARC. Photo courtesy Chicago ARC.
“The south side of Chicago has experienced shrinking healthcare resources for many years,” Kenneth Polonsky, MD, UChicago Medicine’s executive vice president for medical affairs and dean of the biological sciences division, said in a press release announcing the collaboration. “Partnering with the Chicago ARC creates the dual benefit of identifying and integrating global technologies that meet the needs of our patients and healthcare professionals while enabling the University of Chicago to bring its research and innovation expertise to a local and global community seeking to address health inequities.”
Armed with a $100 million investment fund, Chicago ARC will connect those health systems with local community organizations, venture capital funding, corporate partners, and startups to design programs that might include affordable housing, food resources, childcare, social services, transportation, and schools.
“Our job is to understand what keeps [healthcare executives] awake at night,” says Merton, referencing the surge of attention being paid to social determinants of health and barriers to care that keep people and communities from accessing the care they need.
Much of that attention was brought on by the pandemic, which highlighted the plight of underserved populations and communities and turned the spotlight on digital health and telehealth as a means of addressing those inequities.
“COVID has incentivized innovation,” Merton says. “People are more willing to take that leap now and try new things.”
Chicago ARC may be an ideal example of healthcare innovation strategies discussed at the recent HLTH 2022 conference in Las Vegas, which included companies, startups, and ideas not usually associated with healthcare delivery. The conference helped to spotlight the benefits and challenges of partnerships, and the growing idea that innovation needs to expand its sights and adopt some unconventional concepts to tackle the biggest pain points in healthcare today.
These ideas also point out that healthcare—especially primary care—is getting crowded. New players like Amazon and Google are entering the market, alongside telehealth companies, payers, and retail giants like Walgreens, CVS and Walmart. All are offering unique access points to healthcare and their own banks of providers that compete with the local health system, clinic, or private practice.
Merton says collaborations like Chicago ARC give health systems an opportunity to get in front of those competitors.
“Industries outside healthcare will certainly have an impact on healthcare,” she says. “But it’s very easy to get distracted by the shiny ball.”
The key to innovation, she says, is financial sustainability. A new program may look good and address a pain point in care access or delivery, but it won’t go anywhere if it can’t support itself and find the right path to continued use. That’s where payers, corporate partners, and even financial institutions play a role. They can highlight the processes needed to maintain sustainability.
Merton notes that payers are influencing healthcare innovation and have some pretty good ideas themselves—especially in health plans that support health and wellness—but they have their own business models.
A more important partner, she says, might be the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which covers a significant percentage of the population that would benefit from the programs and partnerships that Chicago ARC would be developing. CMS is conservative in embracing innovation, often calling for a good deal of research and data to support new technologies like telehealth and digital health for considering reimbursement, but the CMS Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation has been showing interest in new programs that address health inequity.
Merton says the goal now is to develop “a shopping list” of innovative ideas, then match the resources with programs aimed at addressing those ideas. With more people and organizations at the table, more opportunities will result.
“Imaginative thinking can truly make a difference when it’s executed properly,” she says.
Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.