Can the collaborative economy work in health care?

Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar and current CEO of Buzzcar, envisions collaboration as the future of the world’s economy. Her concept, Peers Incorporated, brings excess capacity of consumer goods or assets—such as unused time or untapped data—to online platforms and apps where consumers ("peers") provide insights that drive business growth.

Speaking recently at Boston Children's Hospital, Chase elaborated on the concept of excess capacity, which is the basis of Buzzcar. Typically, families pay an average of $9,000 a year—$25 a day—for cars they use only 5 percent of the time. That unused time represents value and economic potential. Buzzcar's platform harnesses that unused capacity, allowing multiple peers to supply and book cars on an easy-to-use website at a low cost.

Robin Chase, co-founder of ZipCar

G-auto, an Uber-like service platform in India for motorized rickshaws, has also demonstrated enormous success. By offering discounted health care, discounted life insurance and free family education, founder Nirmal Kumar enticed 15,000 drivers in four large cities to join and use the platform. G-auto now has 4.5 million passengers per month who provide input and rate drivers, improving quality standards for the rickshaw industry as a whole.

Or take the hotel industry. The most successful chain in the world, InterContinental Hotels Group, took 65 years to build enough hotels to supply 645,000 beds. Yet after just four years of existence, AirBnB offers 650,000 rooms in 190 countries through its online platform, which rents available rooms in people’s homes.

There are three ways a company can create a market in the collaborative economy. It can slice a market: Zipcar takes assets it owns and sells slices of time. It can aggregate a market: AirBnB brings together open rooms other people own. Or it can open a market: Catch the Bus took open GPS data from buses and found a new use for it.

Key to the Peers Inc. model's success is facilitated collaboration to improve businesses. On Zipcar's platform, customers can report damage, suggest parking spaces, fuel up, suggest platform improvements, rate the providers, etc. This promotes trust between the company and the individual customer, and ultimately improves the service for all customers.

"The old capitalist model of hoarding things, trademarks, copyrights, patents, and keeping everything closed because that is how I'll extract value is not true anymore," says Chase. "You get more money, more value, more assets and benefits with the openness of Peers Inc."

So what about health care?

A growing number of ventures are applying the Peers Inc. model to health care. Epidemico, a commercial spinoff of Boston Children's Hospital, Harvard Medical School and MIT, opened a market by compiling open source data from the Web, social media and government agencies to identify trends in population health and track disease outbreaks, drug safety issues and supply chain vulnerabilities. Epidemico provides early insights, continuous monitoring and consumer engagement, helping life science companies learn about their customers, get feedback on their therapies and make business decisions. Last year, Epidemico was acquired by Booz Allen Hamilton.

Telehealth is a good example of building new capacity by enabling medical practitioners to provide health care through telecommunications and video technologies. Many conditions can be managed at a distance without the time and expense of an office visit. Boston Children's is harnessing these digital technologies to open markets by providing international access to care and consultations and collaborating with local physicians. Another telehealth example is Hale Health. Through its mobile app, patients can communicate with their primary care providers, ask questions about symptoms and receive a prescription without visiting an office.

Other approaches could reduce unnecessary utilization that strains our health care resources and drives up costs. Senscio has developed an app for patient discharge that collects biometric measures, such as weight and blood pressure, and asks customers to report how they feel and answer condition-related questions. Hospitals have started to adopt the technology for patients with chronic conditions to reduce relapses and re-admissions.

Why is the Peers Inc. model working so well? Chase outlines four pillars of success:

  • Shared network assets have more value than closed assets.
  • More networked minds are greater than fewer proprietary minds.
  • The benefits of shared open assets outweigh the problems. (An example is Wikipedia: people were worried about Internet graffiti on the site, but the benefits of Wikipedia are much greater than the pain of a few graffiti issues.)
  • People get more than they give. By contributing, they get more out of the service.

The Peers Inc. approach has the potential to revolutionize health care, finding available assets and data and turning them into lucrative, flexible and customer-driven businesses. Since hearing Chase's talk, I have been envisioning all the different businesses that could be formed around the unused assets—mine and everyone else's.

David Altman is manager of marketing and communications in Boston Children’s Hospital's Technology and Innovation Development Office.

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