Nov 01 2017

Google’s Smart City Arm Spins Out Unit Aimed at Bridging the Public Health Gap

With the help of technology, Cityblock aims to turn the health system on its head and become a market leader in value-based care for underserved urban populations.

For a U.S. city dweller, zip code is one of the best predictors of lifespan. As the geography and politics of cities create neighborhoods with unhealthy habits and restricted physical or economic access to healthcare, the block a person lives on can mean the difference between decades on his or her life.

To address this disparity, Sidewalk Labs, the smart city arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet, is spinning out its aptly-named public health unit, Cityblock Health. The company aims to leverage technology alongside new care models to better serve underserved populations and level the healthcare playing field.

“Our idea is simple: cities should be healthy places to live — for everyone,” Iyah Romm, co-founder and CEO of Cityblock Health, writes in a blog post announcing the new company. “To make cities healthy, we need a system in which value is rewarded over volume, provider-patient relationships are meaningful and lasting, and the use of technology decreases costs instead of raising them.”

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Tapping Tech to Take on the Urban Health Divide

So how does Cityblock plan on delivering these sorts of outcomes to bridge the healthcare divide?

Romm and the Cityblock team hope to go after every aspect of the healthcare system, from insurance offerings to provider interoperability to patient education.

“By shifting the care balance toward prevention and community support, we know we can make populations healthier,” the company notes on its website. “Key to making this happen will be creating a new culture of care delivery that returns the patient to the center of the health system.”

The new company also will look to offer new care options to lower-income populations served by Medicaid and Medicare as well as help current community health hubs draw out better care models, communicate more effectively with themselves and patients, and empower the community to take control of their own health.

“Cityblock will provide Medicaid and lower-income Medicare beneficiaries access to high-value, readily available personalized health services. To do this, we will apply leading-edge care models that fully integrate primary care, behavioral health and social services,” Romm writes in the blog post.

With the need to reach underserved communities more urgent than ever, Romm says the company will work quickly, partnering with community organizations and launching its own clinics — or “neighborhood health hubs” — the first of which will open in New York City in early 2018.

To enable collaboration in current community health organizations and “enhance strong relationships between member and care teams,” the company will use a custom-built platform called Commons, which is billed as an “easy-to-use, integrated platform for smartphones, tablets and computers,” according to Health Data Management.

“Our platform will help care teams understand our members and the communities they reside in, build and maintain relationships at scale, work together with members toward shared goals, and drive action and accountability simultaneously — ensuring that we keep our promises,” Romm writes. “Harnessing the power of technology, with a heavy focus on design, will enable us to codify workflow, enhance communication, and over time, achieve scale.”

While Romm says the team is not naïve, and understands that health disparities are deeply rooted into our care system and culture, he is optimistic about the company as it sets out on its mission to deliver hyperlocal, personalized care at scale.

“Changes in federal and state policy have triggered a seismic shift in healthcare financing, requiring providers to develop new capabilities in order to deliver community-based, high-value care,” Romm writes. “At Cityblock, we aspire to be at the leading edge of arming the mainstream healthcare system with new tools and a new approach to caring for underserved urban populations.”

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