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From Hip Hop to Healthcare: 'A 20-Plus Year Story'

Analysis  |  By John Commins  
   October 26, 2020

Marcus Whitney, CEO and co-founder of Nashville-based Health:Further, talks about the winding path that led him to healthcare entrepreneurship and his commitment "to make my life's work about this."

This article appears in the September/October 2020 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.

How does one transition from an aspiring hip-hop artist to an established healthcare entrepreneur and investor?

"That's a 20-plus-year story, and I don't think you'll have enough words for that," says Marcus Whitney, CEO and co-founder of Nashville-based Health:Further consulting.

"The simple way to put it is I've been an entrepreneur in Nashville for the last 10 years and, during that time, I entered into the venture capital space and quickly learned that Nashville's superpower was healthcare. And so, in 2015, my partner and I started a healthcare-only early-stage venture fund," he says.

Part of that "20-plus-year story" included two years at the University of Virginia, where Whitney dropped out during his junior year to pursue a career in hip-hop and to wait tables.

"I don't see it as it wasn't a good decision, but it was certainly part of my story, that's for sure," the East Flatbush, Brooklyn native says. After a few years in Atlanta, where Whitney says, "We just didn't quite feel like we had the community around us that we needed," he and his family moved to Nashville.

Nashville prides itself as the Music City, but Whitney quickly learned that healthcare was king. Nashville and its donut counties are home to some of the nation's largest healthcare companies, including HCA Health, Inc., and Community Health Systems, Inc. The city's healthcare sector generates about $92 billion in revenue globally and accounts for about 570,000 jobs.

"Healthcare was the market where we were most likely to be successful as venture capitalists in Nashville," Whitney says. "It has since changed from just that to become an incredible market globally and also a fulfilling market to do work in."

With little experience in healthcare, Whitney knew the learning curve would be steep.

"I had a lot of help. Nashville is a great community and, fortunately, I was relatively well known when we started," he says. "I was able to get access to leaders in the community quickly. You get to skip grades quickly when you're talking to the people who actually run everything, and they can explain to you exactly how things work."

Over the past decade, Whitney says he's come to embrace the healthcare sector "because you can work on it for your entire life; you can pick an area and you can say, 'I'm going to make my life's work about this.' "

"It's going to be meaningful because it touches each one of us, and there's also enough money there to meet your financial needs. It's an amazing industry to be involved in," he says.

Following are highlights from Whitney's conversation with HealthLeaders.

"This is the moment. No one is looking for scared thinking right now. Be bold and think about ways within your locus of control and within your realm of power to effect meaningful change that is going to stick for the next 50 years. The changes we're making right now are going to be multigenerational changes. So, it's a unique window and a unique opportunity."

"The healthcare industry is counterintuitive insofar as it's not a normal economic model. The patient is not the payer. The "aha!" moment for me was understanding the incredible role of CMS and the relationship between CMS and all the commercial payers and how all of that played into the providers. Learning that dynamic is the foundation for everything that you need to know."

"It's critical to have people of color in leadership roles in healthcare, and it's also not happening; not in any way that would be reasonable and measurable. It's important because it's the largest segment of the United States economy, and it also is an essential service that touches every life in America."

"For a person of color, for Black people, that's 18% of the total population of the country, they're all completely affected by it. When you don't have representation, then there's a lack of understanding or lack of perspective. It's not intentional, but there's a lack of empathy for those people. There's also exclusion from the wealth generation that occurs in the lucrative healthcare industry."

"Correcting this will require a lot of work. It starts with commitment from leaders to first acknowledge that such an issue exists. We're still working on that. There hasn't been any meaningful acknowledgment that I can point to from the leaders of the largest healthcare companies in the country to this fact. You have to start with an acknowledgment and once you have an acknowledgment, then you can start the long process."

"We're here to help leaders get inspired about what innovation could do within their organizations and then what their organizations could then do for the communities that they serve. We've done that many times through both our strategic advisory engagements as well as through our conferences over the years. The connections and the inspiration that we were able to create is collectively the success that we're going for."

"Innovation is an understanding that you can always make something better. It starts with the perspective that what we have today can be improved, and then it's the resolve to improve it."

"There are tons of problems in healthcare today. It costs too much and it's inefficient. There are access problems and quality issues, and data rights issues. So, there are opportunities for innovation everywhere."

"The pandemic has exposed a lot of weaknesses in the nation's care delivery."

"We should be honest about the areas where we fell short. We can listen to healthcare workers about where we failed them. We can listen to patient advocates about areas where we should have been more prepared.  We can think about re-domesticating our medical manufacturing."

"In five years, I expect to see a lot of changes around technology, telemedicine, and medical manufacturing and stockpiling. We're going to see a lot more competition. There seems to be some important stuff that's going to make its way through CMS right now to change requirements around physician oversight of many reimbursable procedures."

"It's going to be a different looking healthcare system in five years. It was already headed that way with venture capital, private equity, and the digital health revolution, per se and now with COVID-19. That was a real accelerant for change, and it doesn't seem to me that we're going to go back to business as usual."

“It's critical to have people of color in leadership roles in healthcare, and it's also not happening; not in any way that would be reasonable and measurable.”

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

Photo credit: Marcus Whitney is the CEO and co-founder of Health:Further in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Whitney.)

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