With evidence growing that health outcomes are impacted by a wide spectrum of social determinants1 — not the least being housing, education, poverty and nutrition — the need for healthcare organizations to partner with groups that contribute to people’s lives and not solely to patients’ clinical outcomes is more apparent. Healthcare providers must look to adjacent sectors not only for their contributions to people’s health and wellness, but also as capabilities to be leveraged as they focus on their core competencies.

“You have to be able to build trust and alliances across a great number of partners,” says Sarah Downey, president and CEO of Michael Garron Hospital in Canada. “To do that, you need to be strong listeners, communicators and be humble. You have to speak to an interest greater than your own and your organization’s.”

In fact, partnerships aren’t seen as a signal of deferring responsibility, but as a way to bolster a brand. Mayo Clinic sees partnerships as key to international expansion.

Dr. Anton Decker

“We are taking Mayo Clinic to the world with humility. There is no hubris in healthcare. So, we don’t for a second think that we can take the Mayo model of care, or the way we take care of patients to the rest of the world, without partners. The last thing we want to do is alienate the local companies, physicians and healthcare organizations. We need their expertise, there are nuances in culture in the business of healthcare and often genetic differences in different countries that we don’t have. So, when we go to another country, the learnings go both ways. There’s absolutely no way that we can or want to do it ourselves.”

Dr. Anton Decker
President Mayo Clinic International
(United States)

Data from the 2021 Healthcare CEO Future Pulse reveals that many CEOs (62 percent) are aware of the value of partnerships, and that—now or within the next two years— they are planning to forge robust buy/build partnerships to minimize capability gaps, mitigate risks and reduce costs. For an industry that has often operated with a lot of pride and self-sufficiency, it is refreshing to see that health leaders are open to asking for help.

So, who exactly are these partners? Who is the competition? Who doesn’t matter (yet)? CEOs are trending towards engaging telecommunications companies (52 percent), health technology (software and hardware) providers (60 percent) and insurance companies: (84 percent) to be partners in care delivery. The latter is a little surprising: Insurance companies are part-and-parcel of healthcare in most jurisdictions, but mostly as payers, and not necessarily as partners. Increased cooperation with telecom and tech may suggest that CEOs are seeking to mitigate technological risks, with tech companies as producers of digital solutions and hardware and telecoms providing the infrastructure to enable the flow of data between sites, devices, and nodes. Healthcare leaders may be looking to their particular expertise given that 65 percent believe that their ability to manage technological change threatens their organizational ability to evolve.

Organizational relationships illustration

Despite “big retail” increasingly making moves into the healthcare sector2, retailers are considered partners by just one-third of executives (33 percent) while another third (34 percent) haven’t even put this sector on their radar screens. But the influence of retail – in particular retail pharmacy in many jurisdictions was made more evident when these organizations took on responsibility for COVID-19 testing and vaccine administration. These organizations have strong community-based infrastructure and capacity that can take on responsibilities that allow health providers to focus on higher-value activities. These partnerships may also foster greater customer-centric systems, given their sector’s leadership in living that ethos.

Perhaps most surprising is the attitude towards human and social services organizations: those that work to provide housing, employment support and other services that influence people’s lives and environmental situations. Nearly one-third (30 percent) of healthcare CEOs described human and social services providers as their competitors. Not surprisingly, this opinion was held most strongly by those who describe their organization’s transformation persona as late majority or laggard. While they have a common outcome (the wellbeing of people) – separate budgets and responsibilities suggests a misalignment of accountabilities and cooperation.

Human and social services illustration


Key takeaways

  • Health leaders should acknowledge the competencies of adjacent sectors that can contribute to the common causes of better patient experiences and outcomes and allow them to focus on their own core competencies.

  • Contributing sectors will play different roles – evolving into partners, acting as traditional suppliers, or potentially threatening healthcare organizations’ ways of working, as competitors. Competition may not be a bad thing however; it may force further acceleration of transformation as observed in other sectors (e.g., FinTech and its challenge to the banking sector).

How to take action

As health leaders adopt customer-centric approaches to care pathways, they should assess who are the other contributors and touchpoints in these pathways and how they can partner with those organizations. This can be assessed by spelling out patient journeys and personas of different groups to identify the touchpoints in their care, the inputs to their outcome, and other organizations that supply those inputs to create an ‘ecosystem map’. This map can form a basis of incentive alignment, digital integration, workforce handoffs, and identify where business cases can be made to build, buy or partner.


1 Investing in social services as a core strategy for healthcare organizations: Developing the business case, KPMG LLP (US) and the Commonwealth Fund, March 2018. https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/other-publication/2018/mar/investing-social-services-core-strategy-healthcare

2 Hensel, A. (2020 July 13). Why retailers are racing to build out their own healthcare clinics. ModernRetail. https://www.modernretail.co/retailers/why-retailers-are-racing-to-build-out-their-own-healthcare-clinics/