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There’s never been a better time to be in digital healthcare. It is the most dynamic entrepreneurial field that exists today. The first half of 2021 ushered in record digital-health VC funding and a growing number of healthtech IPOs. There is a hunger for science and a receptivity to medical-related innovation, and we’re finally at the precipice of the long anticipated transformation in American healthcare.
I’ve learned many lessons on my journey to becoming the head of a digital-health and image-management cloud-software company, and I hope I can help aspiring entrepreneurs explore this exciting field. Here are four lessons I have learned.
1. You are part of the care team, even if you never actually see the patient
When you are a digital-health entrepreneur, you have to see yourself as an extension of the medical care team. Unlike a lot of other digital businesses, you’re really focused on improving outcomes for the patient, even if you’re not directly involved with the patient or consumer. You may not see them, but somewhere, there are patients whose treatment and recovery may depend on your product or service. You’re working to help people, first and foremost. That’s the mission.
That means it’s very important to prioritize responding to the needs of care. For example, I was once working with a physician at a large organization, behind-the-scenes, on the IT side. This physician needed help receiving an image to undertake an urgent diagnosis. The image was an extremely large file difficult to receive, and our team helped the physician make the transfer in record speed. It wasn’t about the business, and it didn’t have anything to do with a contract. It was just about working together to get something important done.
It was a moment I think that person never forgot, and that spirit permeated the institution. I think our company was looked at in a different light because they believed we would remain steadfast when the going got tough in helping a patient.
2. Have patience; innovation in healthcare can be a slow process
You have to be patient — it takes a long time for entrepreneurs to innovate in healthcare. The mantra in healthcare is “First, do no harm” while the mantra in entrepreneurship is “Move fast and break things.” Two very different philosophies. A big part of your job is reconciling them and finding a way to bring innovation into a mindset that above all wants to inflict no harm on patients. That’s the sacred Hippocratic oath, and you need to figure out how to innovate in that type of environment.
Patience is a key requirement to making that happen because safety must be accounted for throughout the process, and it can’t be treated as an inconvenience or afterthought. Innovation requires a lot of trial and error, but a healthtech entrepreneur must ensure that the “errors” are worked out in a safe and responsible way. That can take time, so patience is more than a virtue — it’s a necessity.
3. Be humble — you are serving a larger mission and working with very skilled people who you depend on to fulfill that mission
In healthcare, you are working with extensively educated people who are highly technical and highly trained, and you have to respect that. You may have a lot of your own experience and know-how to bring to the table, but understand that many are highly specialized with sophisticated workflows of their own.
Medical and healthcare professionals are used to holding people’s lives in their hands, and they have extraordinary healing skills. As a healthtech entrepreneur, you’re coming in to partner with them, and you have to figure out how you can help them achieve those goals. Always try to show a collaborative spirit and understand where you fit into the partnership. Showing humility and a willingness to service others helps a lot.
4. Be prepared to prove that what you are providing is essential
The incentive systems inside of healthcare are to have fewer applications, not more, so you need to be offering something essential. They are focused on treating people and not necessarily interested in “fixing” something if it doesn’t appear to be broken. If a system or technology they are currently using seems to be working well enough, they are not likely to want to make a change — especially if it’s a digital-transformation change.
In my area of focus, there was an interoperability problem with large data types, creating a niche — a real opportunity to address a gaping need. Hospitals and doctors were still manually transferring data files on CDs (compact discs) because there was no other option. If it was a large amount of data, they would literally put it on a server, load it on a truck and drive it somewhere. We found a way to transform that kind of workflow, but even then, we still had to fight the resistance of those who didn’t want more complexity and felt they didn’t need a fix or more applications.
We had to be laser-focused on explaining to people why this was an essential gap that they had to fill. Ultimately, we were able to capture the attention of the innovation teams at big institutions who recognized this as a critical gap, but before that, we weren’t afraid to start out serving on the margins. We were able to find physicians who were trying to solve those problems themselves outside of the dominant healthcare institutions, and we would work with them.
If you can prove to a clinician that she is going to be able to accomplish something that she couldn’t do previously without you, then she can go to a decision-maker at the institution and say, “We have to have this to expedite processes that will improve patient care,” and then it comes full circle.