Big media companies are branching into health care. Here's why

Comcast saw a 'massive market' in health care, said one exec.

  • By Sarah Toy,
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First, it was the tech giants. Apple Inc. (AAPL) with Apple Health. Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL) with Google Fit.

It was just a matter of time before traditional media companies decided they too wanted a piece of a market estimated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to be worth more than $3 trillion.

Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) , which already provides broadband and networking solutions to health-care organizations, has been looking to expand its reach in the health-care space for some time. The company first got involved through Comcast Ventures, its venture capital arm, and then began collaborating with health care organizations on small projects. In 2015, Comcast worked with Kaiser Permanente Northwest to help launch the managed care company's now-defunct My Pregnancy app, and in 2017, the cable giant collaborated with the University of California Davis to produce a series of health and nutrition videos.

Now, Comcast is working on a 50/50 joint venture with Philadelphia-based health insurer Independence Health Group, the parent of Independence Blue Cross.

The plan is this: Create a patient-centered digital platform that leverages Independence's health expertise and Comcast's direct connections with almost 60 million residential clients. The platform should theoretically help people take better charge of their health by providing an easy way to communicate with their medical providers, review what they need to do before and after operations and more.

Comcast and Independence's relationship goes back decades. Comcast has been one of Independence's largest customers since 1993, and Independence has invested in Comcast's Ventures arm in the past. The two companies began volleying the idea of creating a digital health platform back and forth a couple of years ago, according to Don Mathis, general manager of growth at Comcast NBCUniversal.

"In health care, we saw a massive market," he said.

Thanks to cord cutting, many media companies are concerned about growth, said Sri Velamoor, a partner at McKinsey who specializes in the digital health space. "These companies are looking at all of their assets and thinking: 'How can we re-leverage this to drive growth in adjacent markets where our ability to engage consumers in their homes is a premium? '" he said.

Comcast isn't the first media company to see potential in the health-care space. Cox Communications Inc. has also been exploring the space for several years. In 2015, Cox announced it was partnering with Cleveland Clinic to launch Vivre Health, a joint venture that would provide in-home health-care services via broadband. That same year, Cox acquired telehealth company Trapollo.

Vivre was supposed to help the cable and broadband company expand its reach into health care, but Cox eventually pulled out. "It was a mutual decision to move in a different direction," a Cox spokesman told MarketWatch.

He said the company is focused on growing Trapollo, which provides remote patient monitoring services, something Mathis said Comcast is also considering doing in the future.

Comcast and Independence are still considering several models for generating income from their joint venture. A platform that helps people manage their health issues should cut costs in the long run, which should draw risk-bearing health plans, insurers and providers in as partners, said Brian Lobley, president of commercial and consumer markets at Independence Blue Cross.

But many hospitals and health systems already provide online portals patients can use to access their records and message their health-care providers, said Erik Gordon, clinical assistant professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. He is doubtful about big media's ability to bring anything exciting or new to the space. Comcast and Cox are also looking at an increasingly crowded and competitive digital health space, he said.

"I probably get pitches from four or five startups a week," said Gordon.

Despite the volume of digital health initiatives, there's still no dominant player in the space, likely due to the complexities and many moving parts of the American health-care system, Gordon said.

In some ways, media companies are uniquely positioned to tackle the space, said Dan D'Orazio, CEO of health-care research firm Sage Growth Partners. The biggest issue facing digital health platforms is the lack of engagement. When it comes to hospital-specific patient portals, adoption rates have historically been low, hovering between 10% and 15%, he said. That's something media companies may be equipped to change.

"If you think about the core competencies of a media company and how media has gone from traditional cable to cord cutting to over-the-top to mobile, these companies are experts — in theory — at reaching people and engaging people," he said.

"They've been studying behavior and content for years. They have the infrastructure. They have a lot of intelligence in the area," he said.

Comcast shares have fallen 12.7% in the year to date, while the S&P 500 (.SPX) has gained 5.4%. The Nasdaq (.NDX), of which Comcast is a component, has gained 12.6%. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (.DJI) has added 3.1%.

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