Hydrogen Health banks on texting, AI in crowded virtual care market

Digital health startup Hydrogen Health expects to double its user base by the end of 2022 to cover more than 10 million enrollees through new partnerships with health plans and employers.

Hydrogen Health, the result of a recently inked joint venture between Anthem and private equity group Blackstone, is a tool that uses artificial intelligence to answer common consumer health questions and diagnose routine conditions via text. If necessary, Hydrogen Health connects members to one of its clinicians virtually or can schedule an in-person visit to one of its 400 affiliated Knowledge Health clinics across the U.S.

The company claims to cut healthcare costs by up to 20% by helping members avoid costly emergency department visits, close gaps in primary care and cut the infrastructure associated with in-person services. Hydrogen Health is currently in beta testing with Anthem’s fully-insured business to determine a more concrete return-on-investment for payers. It’s also in the process of expanding to the insurer’s self-funded customers, said Ran Shaul, chief product officer. So far, Anthem has seen a decrease in urgent care and emergency department visits, and higher satisfaction and utilization among enrollees compared with traditional plans.

The new company essentially scaled K Health, an AI-based text service that offers more targeted information than “Dr. Google,” Shaul said. Anthem, which operates Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in 14 states, started working with K Health in 2019 and integrated its algorithm into its Sydney consumer app.

“People are basically riding the wave of virtual,” Shaul said. “But if you think about it and you look very carefully at claims data you would see, ‘same old same old.’ Meaning, same doctor just using a Zoom. Nothing changed.”

By combining AI with 24/7 virtual visits, Hydrogen Health offers a more targeted tool that helps treat more complicated chronic conditions, like diabetes or offering primary care to cancer patients. Regional health plans and Fortune 500 employers are interested in using Hydrogen Health to power their entire virtual care offering, Shaul said.

The company’s method of virtual care delivery represents a departure from how payers and providers are currently offering digital care. Through the app, consumers generally start by texting the AI system their questions and can eventually be connected with a virtual primary care provider if needed, who is intended to serve as a replacement for an in-person clinician.

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The approach differs from companies like Firefly Health, which connects patients to clinicians through phone or audio visits for one-off non-emergency visits. Firefly leveraged its virtual-first provider services to launch a health plan for employers that want to bypass insurers earlier this year.

MDLive, meanwhile, intends to use virtual care to complement in-person services and holds the expectation that consumers will form long-term relationships with their virtual providers. Cigna paid an undisclosed sum to acquire MDLive earlier this year and plans to market its virtual capabilities to smaller health plans.

UnitedHealth Group, in contrast, recently announced that its homegrown Optum Virtual provider product went from having no covered lives at the start of this year to 14 million in network in 2022. The company’s insurance arm, UnitedHealthcare, also recently unveiled a virtual-first plan called NavigateNOW, which combines the company’s 60,000 Optum physicians for virtual care and leverages the insurer’s physical network for any in-person needs.

Centene and CVS’ Aetna have contracted with Teladoc Health to launch their virtual-first plans for their customers. It is unclear how Teladoc providers will engage with these insurers’ existing clinical networks.

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