Healthcare innovation often starts from the right place, but forgets the goal along the way
What good is innovation if it doesn’t get used? What good is the latest technology if it doesn’t impact lives they way it was intended?
If someone is suffering from a health condition impeding their life, it stands to reason they will be the first who rush to try any new therapy and/or technology to alleviate their burden and improve their life, their prognosis and outcomes. So why is it, that more often than not, they don’t? Or they start to use it but do not adhere to protocol? That’s the billion dollar question in the healthcare industry. And it’s also the answer.
I have been working with healthcare and life science (biotech, pharma, medical device) companies for more than a decade now. In almost every case the innovation they are working on starts with wanting to help people. Often inspired by specific people, close to the founders, who cope with various conditions for which these innovators want to find solutions, therapies and cures.
The “origin story” of every healthcare innovation startup almost always involves a personal trauma or personal knowledge of what it’s like to be afflicted with a certain condition and wanting to make it better. But what starts as “doing the right thing for the right reason” almost always pivots along the way, and not always for the better.
In other words, founders set out on the journey to impact the lives and health of millions of people so they do not have to suffer, and they genuinely want to make life better for everyone. But this is a romantic notion that is quickly confronted with the reality of having to raise funds, which brings investors and VCs into the picture. Much as they would love to impact the good of humanity, the money people, even so called “impact investors” still have to care about their bottom line and ROI and this means they have to see their money make more money.
Sad as it may be, prioritizing profit always means de-prioritizing other factors. In fields that are purely technological or that have less impact you may get away with de-prioritizing the ux, or the look and feel of an app you are making, or even some functionality that isn’t crucial to the product. But with healthcare? You cannot give lower priority to functionality and usability. So, in most cases you end up compromising and even sacrificing the human factor – from employees to the actual people who are supposed to benefit from your product – the patients. You focus on the technology, which is attractive to investors, and on the profit at the expense of the people.
Over the years I have seen my fair share of startups coming up with brilliant ideas that never made it to market because they would not compromise on the patient experience and because of that failed to secure investments (e.g company wanted a usable working product at the expense of less shiny tech and buzz trends; investors did not want to invest if it wasn’t “AI-based” or “in the cloud”). I have also seen quite a few that did secure investments because they adopted all the latest tech trends and ended up with a product that doesn’t sell (or sells but not used and does not impact the lives of patients) because to secure the funding, they had to focus on the tech at the expense of humans. In other words “tech for the sake of tech” made sure they got invested in, often even getting to an alpha or even finished product but fail to impact the very humans it was meant to positively impact from the start.
Can we balance the two goals of positive human impact and bottom line ROI?
It takes two tango. I firmly believe that it takes a little bit of compromise and a lot of vision from both the investors and the innovators.
The innovators need to stand firm in their origin story. They must never lose sight of their “why” – why they are doing this, the people they set out to serve and save. They should, though, make an effort to meet investors half way. This means that they cannot and should not forego the use of the latest technologies and innovation, if they apply. But they should never make it only and all about the technology.
Investors, in turn, should remember that trends come and go and that not all that shines is gold. When doing their due diligence they should focus more on the expected impact and remember that in healthcare and life sciences the time to market is significantly longer than in other fields.
Innovation in healthcare can sometimes take years to manifest but if successful it can mean decades of continued use and ongoing profit. When you think about it, most of the world’s best therapies that are also in use the longest are often simple and “dated” when you think of them only as technology yet they still serve doctors and patients daily.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to disrupt healthcare, but more often than not, when you think of the person who is the intended beneficiary of that disruption – the patient – they just want to feel good and for their lives to be streamlined and not disrupted.
The “disruption” that fancy new technology promises, many times disrupts people’s actual lives. Think for example of seniors having to learn to use and navigate apps or wearables that are meant to monitor and keep them safe.
So how can we ensure healthcare innovation doesn’t lose sight of the humans it aims to serve?
By planning the innovation roadmap with humans in mind. Sounds easier than it is. After all, as I said above, all healthcare innovation projects I know have humans at the heart of them and yet they still stray away from the path.
I believe that the product and innovation roadmap should be structured based on the principles of community development. This means asking “why” first and then “who”. Why do we do this and for whom. The answers to these questions, will likely yield at least a couple of target communities, of humans, that we aim to serve – patients and doctors, to start with. Then we may identify additional communities. I call them “communities” and not just “targets” or “target audiences” because they are not just groups of people waiting passively to receive your product, but actively engaged groups that should be involved in the planning, development, testing and later using and sharing their experience.
Once you have your “why” and “who” you can then define your “what” – the USP (Unique selling proposition) if you will – what you are developing, who it is for and how it will affect their lives.
Then comes the trickiest part – the execution. How you develop, when, where, how you market – all have to be done with active engagement of these communities.
Now, what if your investors are one of these communities too? Think – clinician, patient, developer and investor round tables.
There are so many things you can do (and should) – have a patient advisory board, from day 1 (!), have clinician scientific advisors (again from day 1), and have a strategic board of business and fundraising expert as well as a representative of your investors, as soon as you secure an investment.
Have these “boards” meet separately with you to learn about development, test as you develop, give you their opinion and views. Then have all these boards meet together at least once a year so they can be aware of each other’s views and needs.
At the end of the day we are all humans. As such we are all easily attracted to the new and shiny. We want the latest tech in our hands, we want to be the coolest kid on the block with the latest gadgets, but it is not always what we need. And we do not always realize what we need until we get to see it from someone else’s perspective. It is better to share information and knowledge and bring together all the people involved from all aspects of the product’s life cycle: funding, business development, users (the people using your product to treat patients), beneficiaries (the actual people on whom it is used – patients), payors etc.
Better to brainstorm together continuously and develop a product that will actually be useful, impactful and profitable, than to develop without these insights, focus on profit and end up with a product that won’t sell or won’t impact as you hoped.
Get your priorities in order: Humans, Technology, Profit.
My very blunt bottom line is: Community development and engagement methodologies ensure you will not be selling your soul to the proverbial almighty dollar. Especially in healthcare innovation. Fail to employ them and you may end up with an investment and even a product but you will definitely fail the impact test and with it, the long-term profit test.