AITech Interview with Dr. Eric E. Whitaker M.D., M.P.H. Founder, and Executive Chairman, Zing Health

Healthcare & tech have improved member experiences on multiple fronts. Has health tech reached far enough to highlight its benefits?

1.Can you give us a brief of your career before Zing Health?

I studied public health at Harvard University and medicine at the University of Chicago. As a doctor, I saw that Chicago’s world-class medical care was not reaching the urban communities where I practiced. I served my state as director of its public health department and returned to the U. of C. Medical Center to lead its Urban Health Initiative in population health research and community engagement. Since then, I’ve been a serial entrepreneur in bringing affordable care to underserved populations. I founded Symphonix Health, a prescription drug plan for low-income populations that was sold to UnitedHealth Group and helped found the Medicaid plan NextLevel Health, which sold its assets to Centene Corp.

2.Could you tell us more about Zing Health and what was the inspiration behind starting this company?

My partner, Dr. Ken Alleyne, and I had the idea to start a health plan that used technology and social services to make care affordable and arrest the spread of chronic health conditions in minority communities. The Medicare Advantage program for older adults is an ideal vehicle because insurers can cover more of the social determinants of health, the things outside the doctor’s office that put people on a fast track to the hospital. The American Medical Association’s Silicon Valley innovation subsidiary, Health 2047, and other funders shared our interest in using data and technology to improve care for all members in real time, not just after the claims come in.

3.What are some of the challenges you have encountered since launching?

Zing Health had to build an organization with provider networks, marketing networks, data networks and community networks, all at once from the ground up. And we wanted to be very intentional about how technology could enhance each of these networks. So, we use AI not only to evaluate patient histories but also to maintain our provider directory. Call center agents receive text prompts to help them customize members’ plans. Doctors have a more intuitive system that gives them authorizations quickly and gets them paid quickly. And we cover the cost of health tech systems that help our members manage their conditions more effectively.

4.What makes Zing Health unique? How does it stand out from its competitors?

Zing Health is reaching out to underserved urban and rural senior communities to give them affordable, quality care. Medicare Advantage plans typically are marketed to populations that are perceived as healthier and more profitable. However, health tech allows us to reach the people who historically have not been well served. It connects our members with clinical and social resources in their community and beyond. With easier access and more efficacious treatment, they get concierge-level care for their particular health needs. 

5.How are you incorporating technology to help improve offerings for members?

Zing Health members have powerful ways to manage their health on their phones. A personal assistant helps them fill out their patient history and gives them suggestions on keeping healthy. Home-bound members can schedule visits from a companion care service. Members with diabetes get real-time blood sugar readings from a continuous glucose monitoring app. Behind the scenes, our care team uses a health information exchange to stay on top of hospital visits and can help them with medication adherence once they’re discharged.

Unlike big payors, Zing didn’t inherit a fragmented, outdated admin-focused stack. Instead, the company built Personalized, Flexible, Tailored Engagements, Customized and Predictive Member-focused Technology. We hired Vrajesh Shah (previously with Caritas and UnitedHealth) as the new Zing CTO. We rebuilt the entire stack using modern cloud platforms (Azure + Salesforce) enhanced with AI-enabled applications. All systems are now connected to the integrated platform, connecting data across members’ touchpoints and creating a holistic understanding of members’ needs at critical junctures.

6.What excites you most about your industry?

The healthcare industry responded to the pandemic in a heroic fashion, and with the humility that health equity was not going to come without much effort. The contagion revealed the extent of health disparities in the U.S. Blacks and Hispanics were hospitalized for COVID-19 at twice the rate of whites. Our health tech and provider partners are enthusiastic about working with us to provide more holistic care and close the health equity gap.

7.Could you tell us more about your work culture, and what makes Zing Health’s culture unique?

This year we were named one of the Best Places to Work in Healthcare. Zing Health has a devoted workforce that engages with clinicians in focused and meaningful ways to solve for health disparities. Again, we built this culture deliberately. We installed best practices for managed care organizations, created opportunities for minority and women candidates, and created policies for diversity, equal pay and parental leave. As a Pledge 1% partner, we support food pantries, middle school STEM education, college prep for minority medical students and paid time for team members to pursue community projects.

8.In your opinion, what are the most exciting topics in HealthTech right now? How do you keep up with the constantly changing landscape?

I’m encouraged and grateful that health tech is attracting funding and talent to solutions that give patients better access to care and better information about their health. While we are encouraging minorities to pursue medical careers, we cannot recruit enough licensed healthcare professionals to provide robust community care. When patients access a doctor or therapist via telehealth, or when an app gives them diabetes or hypertension coaching, we can engage members in more frequent and focused interactions.

Health equity is about making healthcare more accessible and affordable for everyone and health tech trends are the driving forces behind health equity.
The pandemic pushed technology such as telemedicine and healthcare apps forward for patients to embrace digital health trends and new technology. As life amid the pandemic extended, it deeply affected mental health as well. Mindfulness apps like Headspace, weren’t just for the niche meditation audience, as mainstream adoption drove download numbers in the wellness app market.

9.What are your plans for expansion and growth?

Zing Health started as a regional health plan in Chicago in 2019, and very quickly we’ve scaled up with 17 managed care plans in large and midsized Midwest markets. I’d like to build closer relationships with local providers and insurance brokers to accelerate that growth. Zing Health has also acquired Lasso Healthcare, a Medicare Medical Savings Account (MSA) plan licensed in 34 states, which complements our provider networks with solutions for rural health coverage.

10.What is the biggest piece of advice you would want to give to company leaders?

Culture drives business results. How you work with people and respect them is what brings out new ideas and innovations. We’re fortunate that technology allows many of us to work from anywhere. We have Zing employees in 31 states They have to be working together, with a mission that brings them together.

11.Where do your passions lie? What do you think defines you as a person?

I started my medical training working with HIV-positive patients at UCSF-San Francisco General Hospital, and ever since I’ve tried to meet vulnerable populations where they’re at. I worked at Cook County Health & Hospitals System in Chicago and started a neighborhood health clinic focused on African American men. All the doctors and social workers were Black men and the clinic included a barbershop and job clinic. Building the health of the community had to happen outside of the exam room. The doctor-patient relationship is important, but it’s just a start.

12.Which motivational quote drives you to achieve more at work?

A quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr which motivates me daily states “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.” We at Zing Health aim to increase health equity through high touch and technology.

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Dr. Eric E. Whitaker,

M.D., M.P.H. Founder and Executive Chairman, Zing Health

Dr. Eric E. Whitaker is the Founder and Executive Chairman of Zing Health, Inc, a groundbreaking tech-enabled insurance company making Medicare Advantage the best it can be for those 65 and over. Dr. Whitaker began his career as a primary care physician, researcher, and advocate focused on preventive health and healthcare disparities in communities of color and later served as director of the Illinois Department of Health from 2003 through 2007. He then shifted to developing, investing in, advising, and founding innovative healthcare solutions for medically underserved populations, including Next Level Health and Symphonix Health Holdings. Dr. Whitaker received a BA in chemistry from Grinnell College, earned his MD at The University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, and completed an MPH at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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