Someone Call a Doctor! The Value of Physician Product Development in Healthcare Startups

We are lucky to live in an age where entrepreneurs are diving feet-first into an industry that desperately needs them.  For so many years, healthcare has been a market that innovators avoided, due to confusing regulatory, organizational, payment, and emotional nuances. 

But, we now have an explosion of digital health startups introducing tools that are changing the way we deliver care and engage and empower both patients and physicians.  Most of these brave entrepreneurs are either technical or business school rock stars with plenty of passion and drive to succeed.  Yet, sadly we see that even the best and brightest often start and fail within 2 years.  There is a myriad of reasons for this outcome, but one of the most recurrent causes of failure we see, as we work with startups daily, is the absence of a seasoned physician product-developer in the early phases of a digital health startup’s life cycle.

When asked about involving a physician in product development, most startup founders site costly salary requirements as a barrier.  Others undervalue the role of the physician, and subscribe to the faulty belief demonstrated by Google Health’s failure that, either the consumer benefiting from the product will pull in the physician, or that the product has such obvious value that physicians will undoubtedly adopt it.  

As Kate & Richardson wrote earlier this year, entrepreneurs too often invest much time and money to create what they believe to be an innovative tool, only to find, upon attempting to introduce it into the physician market, that one or more critical components render the product anything from too limited to completely unusable.

These startup companies could have avoided these risks to both product and overall company survival had they involved a physician product developer earlier in their development phase.  As we have seen over and over again, getting “input” from practicing physicians is not enough. Actually, we often see that it can be detrimental to product innovation as practicing physicians’ pain points are varied and usually don’t align with the purchaser’s (e.g. CMIO, COO) reason to invest in a health tech solution.  Additionally, practicing physicians with little to no technical or business background get innovation frenzy and often recommend ideas that result in the startup being on a costly and detrimental “shiny object” goose chase.

Working with a non-practicing physician with technical expertise, such as informatics, can be equally challenging as the understanding of existing clinical workflow and the ability to tie innovation to hard dollar ROI is not typically their core competency.

So, what do health tech startups really need?  They need a physician-product expert with experience in direct patient care and a core competency in healthcare technology innovation.  They also need this resource to not come with a huge six-figure FTE price tag.  When we talk to non-clinical startup founders, we often hear stories about having to rip an entire product apart and start from scratch, after months of development, due to the inability to gain clinical adoption.  We’ve heard horror stories of physician decision influencers ending sales meetings before the pitch was even completed, because the product was so far outside of reasonable workflow that they wouldn’t even consider it.

A recent interview with a physician venture partner summarized that if a company fails to get physician input early in the development process, it will ultimately fail to get the feedback needed to move [forward]. As a team of seasoned health tech entrepreneurs, we would add to that sentiment that the physician input needs to come from a true physician product developer with real-life experience in patient-care under their belt.  

We also understand when our startup clients cite cost as a barrier to engaging such a resource as an FTE – and tell us it’s nearly impossible to find one as a part-time resource, too.
But, just like the innovation of products, there is innovation in how talent is delivered these days.  Thirty years ago, people worked at the same corporate job for decades, drove to work every day, and couldn’t fathom a remote employment scenario.  Compared with today’s “virtual” corporate models, we can see that the workplace model has undergone disruptive innovation itself.

We at Value Prop Shop came together with the shared goal of arming startups with otherwise cost-prohibitive talent, earlier rather than later, to boost success rates.  Contact us to learn more about engaging a physician product-development consultant to help set the right course for your product.