Sticking to Your Core Competency

I've been thinking a lot recently about companies and their core competencies. The idea that a company with a few employees and only a little bit of capital that focuses on only one thing can do that thing more effectively than a billion dollar company with tens of thousands of employees is hard for many people to comprehend. Bijan Sabet wrote about this a while back when he pointed out that so many of the embedded iOS apps have been replaced by applications from tiny startups. From his post:

The default notes app has been replaced by Simplenote

The default messenger app has been replaced by Kik

The default calendar app has been replaced by Calvetica

The default music app has been replaced by exfm, soundcloud and rdio

The default mail client has been replaced by Sparrow

Granted, Apple wasn't necessarily competing aggressively in all of these areas.  But the reality remains that a small group of people that focuses on one thing will always outperform a large group that focuses on lots of things.

With some of this in mind, I came across a blog post by Paul Levy last week on the increasing trend of large health systems getting into the payer space. Due to the growing pressure on reimbursement rates and the increasing prevalence of population health, it only makes sense for health systems to be inclined to cut out a middleman (the private insurers) and become more horizontally integrated. Health systems are finding that they can organize and work directly with large pools of patients (employers, trade groups, unions, etc.) and, potentially, insure and care for them more cost effectively.

While on the surface this may seem like a great idea, Levy points out in his post that many large hospitals have enough problems improving their existing businesses in this complex and rapidly changing healthcare environment:

Here's what I think, based on unscientific site visits, surveys, and discussions with hospital leaders. The vast majority of hospitals--and especially academic medical centers--have barely begun to crack the operational problems that exist in their facilities. The quality and safety of patient care are substandard, compared to what they might be and what has been demonstrated in comparable facilities. The degree of patient-centeredness, likewise, needs major work. Finally, the engagement of front-line staff in process improvement efforts is scattered.

Despite this, 1 in 5 health systems intend to become payers by 2018. And this is where the notion of core competency comes in. Given the massive transition that healthcare is going through -- from managing sickness to managing health -- might some health systems be wise to focus on improving and creating a competitive advantage on what they already do well? As opposed to entering a complicated and risky new industry (health insurance company profit margins generally hover around a very low 4% and the industry is subject to paralyzing state and federal regulation).

Just like Apple has wisely decided to focus their best energy on building great tablets and smartphones and to allow someone else to build great mail and calendar apps (on top of their platform), it might make sense for health systems to continue to focus on improving the quality and efficiency of care and cutting the costs of their existing operations, and to let someone else be great at the underwriting and actuarial work.