Chicago ARC connects the dots between healthcare innovation and community support

A newly formed venture collaboration in Chicago aims to bring together health systems, corporate partners, innovative startups and community resources to address health disparities.

Much of the conversation in health innovation these days centers around new partnerships to address health equity. In Chicago, a unique venture collaboration is building these partnerships between health systems and community organizations while closing care gaps that contribute to wasteful health care spending.

Chicago ARC (Accelerate, Redesign, Collaborate) launched in June 2022 on a model designed by Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, a global leader in transforming healthcare delivery through innovation. Chicago ARC’s goal is to create programs that unite health systems and the communities they serve and break down barriers to health care access.

“These challenges have always existed,” said Dr. Kate Merton, executive director of the Chicago ARC. “There’s not a person I know who doesn’t want to resolve this. Getting down to the devil in the details … takes time and effort.”

Chicago ARC’s healthcare partners are the University of Chicago Medicine (UChicago Medicine) and Sinai Chicago Health System. The two health systems signed memorandums of understanding in June with the new organization, agreeing to support innovations that address issues such as maternal and child health, chronic disease management, rural-urban health care disparities, senior services people, home health care and behavioral health .

Kate Merton, PhD, Executive Director of Chicago ARC. Photo courtesy of Chicago ARC.

“Chicago’s South Side has been experiencing shrinking health care resources for many years,” said Kenneth Polonsky, MD, UChicago Medicine’s executive vice president for medical affairs and dean of the Division of Biological Sciences, in a news release announcing the collaboration. “Partnering with Chicago ARC creates the dual benefit of identifying and integrating global technologies that meet the needs of our patients and healthcare professionals, while allowing the University of Chicago to bring its research and innovation expertise to a local and global community, which seeks to address health inequalities.”

Armed with a $100 million investment fund, Chicago ARC will connect these health systems with local community organizations, venture capital funding, corporate partners and startups to design programs that could include affordable housing, food resources, care for children, social services, transport and schools.

“It’s our job to figure out what’s being preserved.” [healthcare executives] up at night,” says Merton, referring to the surge of attention being paid to the social determinants of health and the barriers to care that prevent individuals and communities from accessing the care they need.

Much of this attention has been driven by the pandemic, which has highlighted the plight of underserved populations and communities and put the spotlight on digital health and telehealth as a means to address these disparities.

“Covid is spurring innovation,” says Merton. “People are more willing to take that leap now and try new things.”

The Chicago ARC may be a perfect example of healthcare innovation strategies discussed at the recent HLTH 2022 conference in Las Vegas, which includes companies, startups and ideas not typically associated with healthcare delivery. The conference helped highlight the benefits and challenges of partnerships and the growing idea that innovation needs to broaden its scope and embrace some unconventional concepts to address the biggest pain points in healthcare today.

These ideas also point out that health care — especially primary care — is becoming crowded. New players like Amazon and Google are entering the market, along with telehealth companies, payers and retail giants like Walgreens, CVS and Walmart. They all offer unique healthcare access points and their own banks of providers that compete with the local health system, clinic or private practice.

Merton says collaborations like the Chicago ARC give health systems an opportunity to face these competitors.

“Industries outside of healthcare will certainly have an impact on healthcare,” she says. “But it’s very easy to get distracted by the shiny ball.”

The key to innovation, she says, is financial sustainability. A new program might look good and address a pain point in access or care delivery, but it won’t get anywhere if it can’t support itself and find the right path for continued use. This is where payers, corporate partners and even financial institutions play a role. They can highlight the processes needed to maintain resilience.

Merton notes that payers are influencing health care innovation and have some pretty good ideas themselves — especially in health plans that support health and wellness — but they have their own business models.

A more important partner, she says, may be the Centers for Medical Care and Medical Services (CMS), which cover a significant percentage of the population that would benefit from the programs and partnerships that Chicago ARC will develop. CMS is conservative in its embrace of innovation, often calling for plenty of research and data to support new technologies like telehealth and digital health for reimbursement consideration, but the CMS Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation is showing interest in new programs targeting inequity in healthcare.

Merton says the goal now is to develop a “shopping list” of innovative ideas, then match resources with programs aimed at addressing those ideas. With more people and organizations at the table, more opportunities will appear.

“Imaginary thinking can really make a difference when it’s done right,” she says.

Erik Wiklund is the innovation and technology editor for HealthLeaders.

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