“We’ve only seen 29 companies that have been acquired for over $150 million,” Halle Tecco says over the phone while vacationing in Rome. “We’re hoping that will pick up.”

Tecco, a 29-year-old business innovator, is talking about Rock Health, the healthcare-technology startup accelerator she built three years ago while studying at Harvard. (It also happens to be the biggest – and oldest – of its kind.)

She is speaking apologetically about numbers that to others would be enough to bust out the bubbly from the office kitchen fridge. But she’s a pioneer in an emerging sector and the stakes are high.

What Tecco is after is the first big healthcare brand, the Apple or Google of healthcare. What that company will look like and how it will get there is another story.

It’s also a complicated story, but one that content marketers and creators should be paying close attention to, if they aren’t already. The abridged version goes something like this: Legislative reforms that encourage preventive healthcare, combined with an exponentially growing healthcare information technology (HIT) sector are forcing what was once a largely B2B industry to morph into a customer-facing one.

“When that happens it’s a different business model, it’s a different marketing model,” Tecco says. What it means is more chances for content agencies to collaborate with providers (healthcare institutions) and especially payers (insurance companies). And those collaborations could look like anything from YouTube videos to wearable technology.

The healthcare digital technology accelerator Rock Health draws participants from startup hubs like Silicon Valley and beyond.

The healthcare digital technology accelerator Rock Health draws participants from startup hubs like Silicon Valley and beyond.

Change comes to healthcare

Long before the 2010 healthcare reform (affectionately or derisively known as Obamacare, depending on politics), doctors and hospitals used a Fee For Service model (FFS), which meant that they were rewarded for treating as many patients as possible as efficiently as they could.

Much has changed since the 1940s, when the FFS model was initiated – most notably, Americans’ waistlines. In the 21st century, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer have become so ubiquitous that they are collectively referred to as “lifestyle illnesses.” Treating them is where as much as 75 percent of healthcare dollars get spent.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act introduced a host of initiatives aimed at offsetting the mounting costs of treating the sick, including preventing sickness in the first place.

The change is big for physicians and it’s huge for insurance companies. They too will be tasked with keeping their members healthy, and if they can do it at a large enough scale, they’ll receive government bonuses.

It’s too premature to say whether this quality over quantity tactic will be enough to make Americans healthier. But it’s great news for the content industry.

As content marketing evangelist Joe Pulizzi said over email while preparing for his upcoming Health Summit, “It’s more imperative than ever to help patients with wellness and satisfaction. Content marketing can and will play a major role in this.”

Turning healthcare providers into content creators

Mayo Clinic has one of the most popular healthcare provider YouTube channels.

Mayo Clinic has one of the most popular healthcare provider YouTube channels.

Content agencies may have their sights set on the healthcare industry, but many caregivers still need to be convinced of content’s value.

Healthcare lags up to two years behind most other industries when it comes to content marketing. Part of that is bureaucracy, part of that is fear.

Lee Aase has made it his mission to change that attitude. Since 2010, Aase has been hard at work in the American heartland, fashioning the Mayo Clinic Social Media Health Network, which has earned the respect of the industry at large.

The network serves as an online meeting place for physicians, administration, hospital staff and anyone in between interested in leveraging social channels and content marketing specifically for healthcare. Webinars, how-tos and Twitter chats appear regularly on the network’s calendar. Members chime in from across the U.S.

It’s an exciting time to be in the space, but it’s never smooth sailing, says Aase. “We are in a risk-averse, regulated environment, which makes it easy for people to say ‘no’ if they want to.”

That reluctance, in part, is what motivated Aase to launch the network. “A big part of it is just raising the general social literacy of people in healthcare so that they can figure out how to use these tools in a way that helps them,” he says.

From Insurance companies to media brands

As novel as the new reforms may be for providers, customer service – that is, “bedside manner” – runs deep for most doctors and nurses. That’s not necessarily the case for insurance companies, which until recently have functioned primarily in the B2B space.

But the Health Insurance Marketplace, which will give millions of Americans the unprecedented chance to shop around for coverage, along with pressure from the 2010 legislation for insurance companies to actively help members live healthier, is changing what an insurance brand looks like.

What will be key for insurance companies is how they transition into the B2C space.  “The more insurance companies are involved in the wellness initiative, the more brand value is seen as an objective,” says Phil Micali, VP healthcare solutions at dLife. For him, that spells opportunity.

If you’re one of the 25 million Americans with diabetes (or 79 million with pre-diabetes), there is a decent chance you have visited dLife. The media brand receives two million unique visits to its website each month. It offers podcasts, a social network, games and quizzes. It’s got a mobile app. It has a web TV series that also airs weekly on CNBC.

The brand has two revenue streams. The first comes from advertising on its direct-to-consumer website. The second is dLife Healthcare Solutions, a curriculum or “bootcamp” that helps sufferers manage their disease. The product is delivered to customers, usually for free, through insurance carriers and medical device manufacturers.

Nevertheless, just as with providers, not all insurance companies are chomping at the bit. “It’s hard for health plan and health insurance companies to get their arms around the term ‘content marketing,’” Micali says. “These are folks who have related to people in virtue of sending in claims to sick people.”

That’s why it’s especially urgent for insurance companies to jump on the branding bandwagon with the help of content, and chances are we’re going to see more sites and solutions like dLife cropping up.

Aetna, for example, offers CarePass, a platform designed to help people keep track of their health and fitness goals. The health insurance giant also just spent $50 million on a marketing campaign and interactive website called “What’s Your Healthy?” which displays motivational tweets and other user-generated content.

Aetna's interactive "What's your healthy?" website invites people to respond via social media.

Aetna’s interactive “What’s your healthy?” website invites people to respond via social media.

Prognosis: digital

Content marketing isn’t just about Facebook pages and flashy websites, it’s increasingly about utility: creating tools that help people in unexpected ways. This is especially the case in healthcare. The government is opening the faucet on health-related data, which startups across the United States are beginning to use as the foundation for myriad digital products.

As integrated care becomes common practice, insurance companies and medical centres will need both technology and content to help them keep their patients healthy between visits.

“The payers are such a big stakeholder in the healthcare system,” says Rock Health founder, Halle Tecco. “Finally lighting the fire under them to start competing on service and quality is creating a really great marketplace for software-based products that they can use to serve their clients.”

For example, take the FDA-approved Proteus Digital Health Feedback System, a boring name for an ingestible sensor that runs on stomach acid and transmits physiological data via Bluetooth technology to a mobile app. Or else there’s CellScope, a technology platform that turns smartphones into diagnostic tools.

Proteus Digital Health Feedback System uses a sensor that runs on stomach acid.

Proteus Digital Health Feedback System uses a sensor that runs on stomach acid.

According to a report by Rock Health, funds are moving away from traditional healthcare sectors like biotech and medical devices as quickly as they’re flowing into the digital tech sector. Digital health companies raised $1.4 billion in funding in 2012, 46 percent more than in 2011.

To get a better picture of just what the convergence of tech and content might look like, I arranged a phone call with Erica St. Angel, the chief marketing officer at Asthmapolis, one of the most hyped healthcare tech startups around.

Located in Madison, Wisconsin, Asthmapolis is an FDA-approved medical device that uses mobile tracking, sensor technology and analytics to help people control their asthma.

“We’re all confused,” she says, when I confess I’m having trouble grasping the finer details of the American healthcare system.

While Asthmapolis is intended for individuals, the startup’s clients are predominantly integrated health systems (providers, hospitals, group physicians) or insurance companies that make it available for free to their members, “obviously with the hopes of improving health outcomes and reducing cost,” she says.

While the product is itself a stand-alone brand, health insurance companies and clinics can offer Asthmapolis and tools like it to their customers in order to stand apart and define their own brands.

Looking ahead

So what does this mean for the future of content and healthcare? It’s anybody’s nut to crack. As payers and providers become more attuned to the needs of their patients, the possibilities for using content to satisfy them are bound to increase. Asthmapolis might become the next big healthcare brand, or it may be the next great marketing tool. More likely, it will become both.

At the end of our phone call, Halle Tecco mentions that she’s been speaking with former Apple CEO John Sculley in the lead-up to an event Rock Health is hosting, and at which he’ll be speaking.

Sculley has been investing in the health technology space, Tecco tells me, and is convinced that healthcare is due for its own Apple brand. What that brand will look like remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that branded content will help it get there.