We had the pleasure of speaking with Adam Powell, Ph.D., President of Payer+Provider Syndicate

What do you do?

I am a healthcare economist, and my company, Payer+Provider Syndicate, uses findings from health services research to help health insurance companies and hospitals improve their operations and understand their operating environment. Taking on this role was not the result of one large choice, but rather the product of years of smaller decisions that led in this direction.

Dr. Powell, how did you embark upon your career doing business in China and how did you become interested in healthcare?

My journey towards running a health services consulting firm started many years ago, during my junior year at MIT. While taking a course on online writing for my degree in expository writing, I was asked to work with a team to develop a web application that would be useful to people. My team built a working beta of an application for helping people manage medical conditions by monitoring their dietary intake. For my degree in management science, I subsequently wrote a business plan for the site, which I entered into a business plan competition. Although the site never became a business, in the process of developing it, I learned about managing a team and writing technical specifications. More importantly, I learned that I had a passion for bringing about positive change through healthcare.

Entering my senior year at MIT, I recognized that I wanted a career that in some fashion combined business, healthcare, and technology. I had studied at the Sloan School, and thought that the business school professors had cool lives. As a result, I resolved to get a Ph.D. from a business school – studying healthcare and technology in some combination. I applied to a number of programs related to IT management and healthcare management, and ultimately ended up at The Wharton School’s doctoral program in Health Care Management and Economics.

The time that I spent at The Wharton School enabled me to grow in a number of ways. Beyond taking classes, I got to work on research with excellent researchers and to expand my knowledge through extracurricular activities and travel. I felt like I needed to get more hands-on experience in healthcare, so I ventured off to Kentucky to work at a health insurance company over the summer after my first year. While I loved the innovative culture of Humana, I did not know anyone in Kentucky, so I had a lot of free time to work on a startup after work. Utilizing some of the program management skills that I developed in college while interning at Microsoft, I worked on a social web startup with a college friend. Neither of us were developers, so we hired a contract software development company in Shanghai. My business partner was a native Mandarin speaker, and he encouraged to start studying the language so that I could better interact with the development company. For the next year and a half, I stayed up to 3 a.m. every night to provide guidance to the development team during Chinese business hours. We launched a working beta and made an unsuccessful attempt to pitch the site to VCs. Given that we had taken a desktop strategy in what had become an increasingly mobile world, we decided to abandon the product but to maintain our interest in commercializing our ideas.

After Wharton, I felt that the best way to get further hands-on experience was by joining an established consulting firm specializing in healthcare. So, I spent some time as a management consultant serving companies in the health insurance industry. During my time as a management consultant, I became aware of the disconnect between the field of applied health services research and the consulting industry. As my old colleagues and I had invested years in developing and perfecting potential solutions, I felt that it would be a pity for many of them to stay on the shelf. I resolved to bridge the gap by founding Payer+Provider Syndicate, an entity with the ability to bring solutions from health services research into action. Payer+Provider maintains a panel of healthcare experts with doctorates and offers solutions to clients that are based on prior research.

As President of Payer+Provider, I have had to draw on a number of experiences that I had earlier in my career. Having founded a company previously, the process was a bit less daunting. Likewise, having worked in a professional consulting firm and having run a student consulting group, I was familiar with processes and industry norms. The investment in learning Mandarin that I previously made to work with a Chinese firm has facilitated the development of Payer+Provider’s China offerings. While I have pursued my interest in healthcare, business, and technology in a number of different ways over the course of my career, each experience has provided me with lessons that I have been able to use in the next one.

In what specific countries do you feel there exists potential for entrepreneurs and graduates/professionals in their international careers?

I think that the greatest opportunity exists in the People’s Republic of China. Both China and the United States want to increase access to health insurance – but China is trying to increase healthcare spending while the United States is trying to decrease it. The 12th Five-Year Plan, released by the Chinese Government in 2011, demonstrates that a significant financial commitment will be made to improving the quality and availability of healthcare between now and 2016. While health insurance coverage is not very rich today, the government has made access nearly universal over the past decade and is increasing the richness each year. This all creates great opportunities for entrepreneurs wishing to make an impact on the financing and delivery of healthcare. From a social perspective, the impact is huge, as there is no larger healthcare system than the Chinese healthcare system.

Moreover, in what areas of healthcare do you think there exists potential for entrepreneurs or graduates/professionals in finding jobs in China’s healthcare system?

There exist opportunities in all areas, but each area requires its own type of expertise, so it is difficult to participate in more than one. While most Chinese hospitals are publicly-run, there are a small number of private institutions hiring foreign physicians. Although most Chinese are in one of several publicly-run health insurance programs, commercial offerings also exist. There is likewise a booming market for both pharmaceuticals and traditional medicines. Serving each of these markets requires specialization and extensive study. Local relationships are often crucial to the success of business ventures. I would recommend that entrepreneurs seeking careers in China get to know the Chinese analog of their current professional community, and then deeply involve native Chinese in the development of their ventures.

You’ve mentioned that you admire some of the contrasts between the Chinese healthcare system and that of the United States. How do these differences result in business opportunities in China?

Perhaps the greatest difference between the two nations is that the average Chinese family income is less than the cost of the average American family health insurance policy. As a result, China has developed a three-tiered system of care which uses practitioners with a wider range of training than is seen in the U.S. in order to achieve greater affordability. A great opportunity exists for entrepreneurs willing to redevelop existing technologies to better serve the needs of lower income customers. As C.K. Prahalad discussed in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, low cost technologies created for the developing world have the potential to eventually better serve the needs of the higher income world. However, as incomes grow in China, there will also be an increasing demand for complex care. The number of specialty hospitals in China doubled over the past decade, and I predict that the trend towards the use of more skilled providers will continue. Thus, there may be opportunities surrounding care delivery. Finally, due to family planning policies, seniors will have fewer descendants to provide care for them than have historically been available. As grown children increasingly live remotely from their parents, there is an expanding need for senior services.

Any advise for a university student/graduate looking for a job in international healthcare?

Learn about an area and its adjacencies, and work to become an expert in it. First, pick out an area to impact that you care about which is both financially and socially important. Then, learn as much as you can about that area and how it interacts with other areas. Know where the boundaries of your area lie so that your efforts do not become spread too thin. If you want to work internationally, it might be best to focus on only one country and one healthcare field. Every country’s healthcare system is quite different.

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Adam C. Powell, Ph.D. is Partner and President of Payer+Provider Syndicate, a consulting firm which uses teams of economists, health services researchers, and physicians to provide precise answers to operational challenges faced by health insurance companies and hospitals. A healthcare economist and published author, Dr. Powell’s specialty is using statistical techniques to examine issues concerning technology, operations, and firm decision making. He holds a Doctorate and Master’s degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Health Care Management and Economics. He also holds Bachelor’s degrees in Management Science and Writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Outside of work, he exhibits his art and studies Mandarin Chinese. He can be reached at powell@payerprovider.com