Apple's first hires for its health clinics show how it's thinking differently about health care

  • Apple has made quick work of hiring for its new employee health clinics.
  • It has brought on more than 40 people, according to a LinkedIn search.
  • These people are focused on care, and not just health, with more exercises coaches, nutritionists, care navigators and nurses on board than doctors.
Apple CEO Tim Cook 
Jacopo Raule | Getty Images
Apple CEO Tim Cook 

Apple's wellness clinic, AC Wellness, has made quick work of hiring more than 40 people to provide concierge health and wellness services to its Bay Area employees, according to a LinkedIn search.

AC Wellness is a separate subsidiary of Apple but is dedicated to its employees in Santa Clara County, where the company is based. CNBC initially reported on the initiative in February, when the company started posting jobs. The company has brought on a range of health providers and technologists since then, with the majority joining within the past three months.

Several people familiar with the group say Apple's Sumbul Desai, formerly chief of Stanford's center for digital health, is leading the initiative. Desai and the other groups within Apple's health team report to the company's COO, Jeff Williams, who has a passion for health care.

Apple has recruited about a dozen folks from Crossover Health, which previously ran its onsite clinics in the Bay Area and still does in other locations. The company looked at buying Crossover, before deciding to build its own clinics. Another hot spot for recruiting is nearby Stanford Health Care, where Apple's Desai previously worked.

Apple is far from the only employer starting its own on-site medical clinic, although many are run by third parties. Intel, Facebook and other companies with large campuses boast these services for employees.

But Apple's approach stands out for its focus on care, and not just treating disease. On its website, AC Wellness details how it's looking for candidates to join the group who have an appreciation for "patient experience and passion for wellness and population health."

That's not business as usual for primary care, where the average visit lasts about 15 minutes.

Apple and AC Wellness did not respond for a request for comment.

Putting the care back in health care

Most of the team hired so far aren't doctors. In fact, the hires skew toward wellness professionals like nutritionists, exercise specialists and nurse practitioners. A lot of the hires have a background in alternative or functional medicine and there's even a "wellness lead" — Jennifer Gibson, a former head of coaching at Vida Health, a health-tech start-up. Gibson, according to her profile, is passionate about things like nutrition, stress management and smoking cessation, which aren't always offered at primary care practices.

The company has also brought on at least a half dozen "care navigators," who don't have medical degrees but do have a background in directing patients to the most appropriate care. In some cases, that might involve a followup conversation with a specialist or a lifestyle change that might alleviate the problem on its own. That could reduce costs as these navigators can better ensure that Apple employees and their dependents aren't getting unnecessary care.

The MDs it has hired, like former Stanford community physician Darren Phelan, emphasize on their LinkedIn profiles that their vision at AC Wellness involves putting the care back in health care. Another, former Crossover doctor, Nitun Verma, has a distinctive focus on sleep, which is also uncommon for a primary care clinic.

Many of the new hires have previously worked at health-tech start-ups, which suggests that AC Wellness has the opportunity to dabble in cutting-edge fields like virtual medicine and might well offer smartphone consultations.

Some health experts say Apple's approach ties in with a broader trend. The U.S. health sector is starting to move away from "fee for service," where doctors bill according to a set of fixed codes. That system, which is still the norm, rewards care professionals for administering expensive tests and procedures rather than for wellness or preventative care.

These days, policymakers are increasingly pushing for an alternative that gives doctors incentives to improve patient outcomes, which is known as "value-based" care.

Many primary care providers, employers and start-ups are at the forefront of this trend, believing that it's a way to save money while improving the patient care experience. Many health insiders expect that the Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan partnership group will also take this approach with their employees, given that its new CEO, Atul Gawande, has spoken out against wasteful health spending.

"In a world where you're responsible for managing a population's health outcomes, incentives for doctors get flipped on their head from what you see today," said Zak Holdsworth, CEO of a company called Hint Health, which provides software tools to a growing population of doctors who don't take insurance, favoring instead direct relationships with patients.

"Doctors will start spending more time with patients talking about things like wellness and prevention to make sure they're not coming back every month," he said.

Employers have other reasons for embracing wellness. Workers who feel energized and happy will be more productive at the office and are less likely to rack up costly health bills through emergency room visits or trips to specialists.