Video Quick Take: UnitedHealth Group’s Madhu Palkar on Leveraging Technology to Simplify and Transform Health Care

Video Quick Take: UnitedHealth Group’s Madhu Palkar on Leveraging Technology to Simplify and Transform Health Care

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Todd Pruzan, HBR

Welcome to the HBR Video Quick Take. I’m Todd Pruzan, senior editor for research and special projects at Harvard Business Review. Today, I’m here with Madhu Palkar, Chief Strategy Officer and Chief of Staff to UHC Global. Madhu also serves on UHC’s Culture Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council.

Today, Madhu will be talking about how we can use technology to simplify and transform health care. Madhu, thank you so much for joining us today.

Madhu Palkar, UHG

Thank you so much, Todd, for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and your listeners.

Todd Pruzan, HBR

We’re glad you’re here. What do you mean by simplification of health care through technology? Who does that benefit?

Madhu Palkar, UHG

Sure. When we think about health care, there are so many participants in health care—from clinicians to care providers, payers, insurance companies, government agencies, pharma life sciences companies, employers, etc.

Everyone’s goal ultimately is to serve the consumer, that human on the other end. For all the stakeholders that I just listed—for them to be successful, they must be able to convince the consumer of the value that they drive around consumer adoption of the services that they bring to the table.

That consumer adoption comes when we reduce complexity, and that confusion people talk about when they talk about health care. We need to create an integrated experience, a simple experience that is easy to navigate. One that is transparent and enables improved outcomes.

For example, if I am not feeling well and I don’t know if I should go to my doctor, I can instead schedule a virtual visit with my doctor or on an online portal. However, I will need to know how much this will cost and check with my insurance.

Now, within UnitedHealthcare, we have a solution, called BIND Health that helps the consumer understand upfront how much a service may cost. Simplifying the experience and providing transparency.

Technology’s key role is to enable the simplification of that experience. And that simplification of experience that we talk about is about providing relevant information so that I, as a consumer, have a clear next step or action to take.

Todd Pruzan, HBR

Madhu, how is digital helping with the simplification of experience for consumers?

Madhu Palkar, UHG

Consumers touch health care through various channels. We know that you can ask your pharmacist questions or ask a physician questions, via fax, via phone, via insurance company service rep, health coach telemedicine.

It is daunting, as you may imagine, to navigate across these channels to help plan for you and your loved ones. We have all been there. What consumers want is a direct engagement, a direct relationship. They want exact relevant information at the right time and place.

The consumer need is transparency, like we just talked about, so that they can make the right health and financial decisions, because they want to make sure they’re protected both from a health standpoint and from a financial standpoint. We at UnitedHealth Group have a consumer walk in through either one of the Optum engagements. For example, OptumRX, or through our clinic, or through the Optum store. Or then, our consumer is a member of our UnitedHealthcare insurance plan. They come in through myUHC.

Digital technology helps that consumer, that individual, navigate successfully across all these channels, across technology as well as across their human interactions. A ton of complex things can happen in the back, Todd, but for you and me as a consumer, we don’t see, hear, or experience that.

Lastly, like I said, it is about reducing that financial stress, the financial burden, the mental stress, and improving that trust in the overall system. Let me give you a quick example. For our Colombia market, we have this simple, very simple digital omnichannel experience through Dr. Colmédica, where a patient can schedule a virtual visit, or they can meet with their physician or their specialist in person.

When they do have that in-person, or they toggle between the in-person and then the virtual, they have all the information at their fingertips to provide a unified experience. And the patient will not have any service differentiation. This is all happening with digital and what it means when we talk about digital helping with simplification of experience. It means that our technology and our digital assets are working seamlessly together.

Todd Pruzan, HBR

So, Madhu, how is technology helping with managing health costs?

Madhu Palkar, UHG

Todd, it is no longer the days when we talked about these cool point solutions. Of course, we need innovation and specific singular areas. But all that innovation, all those point solutions, they all need to be integrated within the health system.

When that happens, that’s when we are essentially managing and reducing the costs, because we’re reducing that unnecessary, either spend [or] unnecessary steps in the system that don’t add value ultimately to the consumer, both for the health outcome as well as from a financial standpoint for all stakeholders that are playing in the backdrop. For us, we leverage technology to create that integration across the value chain of every stakeholder.

For example, if you look at the payer. The payer has their own value chain. A provider has a different value chain. The life sciences, and so on and so forth.

When we bring market-leading expertise across the continuum, we talk about our greatest differentiator is that ability to reduce that overall cost by streamlining the entire system, reducing the fraud in the system, reducing the waste in the system, reducing unnecessary avoidable steps. And then we also ultimately leverage the BI analytics to improve the overall process. When we hand this technology to the people using it, they have efficient and effective administrative and clinical guidelines to help them reduce the overall cost to the system.

Todd Pruzan, HBR

So how do you use data analytics and technology to improve access?

Madhu Palkar, UHG

At UnitedHealth Group—we serve diverse groups across the world. Each of these diverse groups have their own unique needs. They come from different cultures, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different geographies. As we’re working across different countries, each country has their rules, their regulations.

We leverage data analytics and technology to tailor our product offerings by each country. Then within that country, we will also make it relevant for consumers of specific regional areas, so they can gain fast, easy access. If you’re living in Sao Paulo in Brazil, you need access to your relevant physician in that region. You need to have—you want to make sure that they are high quality, that they are specialized in that area.

For example, our Americas Medical Services in Brazil—they use the data and technology to both understand, what are the most critical health conditions and which physicians can help those patients most effectively, as well as what technology can be leveraged for that disease area. We’ve created the Centers of Excellence that can help as a consumer or as a patient walks in through a door with a certain health condition—he or she can be helped across all aspects of that disease. These are some of the ways that we have used data and analytics to improve access.

Todd Pruzan, HBR

So, Madhu, how is technology simplifying care?

Madhu Palkar, UHG

Sure. I just talked about technology and analytics and how it is helping patients with certain disease areas. That’s one way. However, there’s this other aspect of helping patients figure out the right modality of care.

By that I mean, is that—and Covid sort of showed it a bit for us, which was telemedicine. It helped us adapt a bit as well. But we need to know as a consumer, does one really need to go to a specialist when they have a headache? Or should they go to their PCP? Or should they call into a virtual health clinic? Across all these modalities—getting the right care, the right physician, or the right care provider, are about simplifying the care aspect.

We provide that same information and analytics, to the clinicians and care providers as well so that they can ensure that they have all the right patient information to avoid unnecessary ER visits, avoid unnecessary readmissions, and that as they’re sharing the patient information across various clinical settings, they can avoid complications and provide secondary care management.

When I say care, I mean the whole human, both the medical side as well as the mental health side. As we talk about care, we have also continued to link mental and physical health, bringing the whole person together.

Todd Pruzan, HBR

What can other industries learn from health care technology?

Madhu Palkar, UHG

Sure. So, I thought a bit about that. And of course, health care has a lot to learn from other industries as well.

But when I think, what I’m most proud of as a member of the health care community, I would say that it’s our ability to change, our ability to adapt and continue to focus on the people that we serve. With Covid came many challenges for us, for our partners, for everyone in the health care arena.

However, people rallied and came together. They evaluated what is in the best interest of the people and the communities that we serve? We know that [this service] is a serious responsibility and we ensure that the data that we have and the health of the people in the communities that we serve is always the true north.

With this, when technology is leveraged for health care, the goal of that technology is always to add value to the lives of the people that we serve. That has always been our true north and I think if anything, that is something very unique to health care.

Todd Pruzan, HBR

Thank you. Well, Madhu, this has been a great discussion. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Madhu Palkar, UHG

Thank you so much, Todd, it was my pleasure. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here with you and your viewers.

To learn more about UnitedHealthcare, please visit

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