The best companies lean towards the subtle and simple with their messaging. Nike says to “Just Do It”, not that they’re shoes will help you on your “journeys” or that they’ll lower your cholesterol. Apple had the “think different” campaign but now the iPhone X welcomes you to: “Say hello to the future.” Google moved from the weird anti-evil slogan to: “do the right thing.” Amazon has no external slogan, but internally says: “Work hard, have fun, make history.”

Healthcare in the US rightly can’t promise the same things. For the commercially insured, most people only access the medical care system episodically. Healthcare is also full of structural and other issues: lack of supply, our poor collective health, misaligned incentives, fees, legislative gridlock, and red tape. But baby steps can help (see book by Dr. Leo Marvin).

The movement of vendor transparency and honesty is upon us. And one test of a program is that if you can’t explain it to an arts major, beware of inflated expectations hidden in a black box. One vendor touted its 14B claims and 42 data sources. The low percentage of total employees following their algorithmic logic had steerage leading to 15% lower hospital readmission rates, something that translates to $2-3 per member per month if true, not even enough for one Starbucks run (and not counting fees).

Some of these programs do work, but if a program starts with opacity and doesn’t pass a plausibility test (for example, a reduction in the units of care per 1,000 members the way you’d expect it) then you know what the real story is. Al Lewis points this out in his fine book “Why Nobody Believes the Numbers: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction in Population Health Management.” 

First, do no harm. Second, be honest and set expectations about what you can and cannot do, and know that innovation can sometimes begin with subtraction. Like with all truly great storytelling: show (in this case with statistical significance), don’t tell. Leave the journeys and experiences to those trekking across South America, tutoring at-risk kids, or having a baby.

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