I find it kind of crazy when a healthcare company isn’t founded by somebody who has worked on the frontline, or else experienced the problem they’re working on first-hand — viscerally, directly and painfully.
Healthcare is different from other sectors, because pain and disease are some of the most profound, and terrifying human experiences, and they affect us all. And whilst technology is starting to augment health in previously unimaginable and exciting ways, care provision is still defined by human interactions.
Working on the ground delivering healthcare gives founders an understanding that goes deeper than models, metrics and user experience (UX), because clinicians’ careers are defined by the individual stories of the people they look after.
It was my experience as a junior doctor working in the NHS that led to the ideation behind Pando (formerly Forward Health), the company I cofounded with fellow medic Dr Barney Gilbert and technologist Philip Mundy.
I was working in a challenging region of the UK where healthcare inequalities are at their most profound; struggling to communicate with colleagues when I needed them the most. People would come into A&E with a sore throat and turn out to have life-threatening lung disease and have suffered a silent heart attack. I was often in a situation where I needed advice from senior colleagues about next steps or direct support from specialists, and fast.
I still work as an NHS paediatrician at least four days a week, meaning I continue to live those problems. It’s for that reason that I can look our users in the eye and tell them I know what they’re going through.
I fully understand that doctors and nurses often don’t have a single minute to spare — not even to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water — that they endure daily battles with outdated computer systems, sometimes questionable management, and colleagues constantly on the brink, all amidst the expectation that they will share their patients’ joy when things go well, and be strong when they don’t.
At Pando there’s a reason why two of our cofounding team of three are doctors, and why we have seven clinicians on the team. One of the first documents we ever wrote was an ethics charter, listing the reasons why we started this company and the principles we would never compromise on.
When we talk about data, we’re talking about the patient who didn’t want her husband to know that she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, or the HIV positive teenager attempting a normal adolescence. When we talk about messaging, we’re talking about a junior doctor covering six inpatient wards reaching out for help from a senior colleague at 2am in the morning as a deteriorating patient gets worse in front of his eyes. When we’re talking about workflow, we’re talking about a seven hour wait in A&E and patients lying in the corridor on trolleys.
Those experiences are the reality of a career in healthcare — it’s a truly rewarding job, but only a founder who has been through the highs and lows can hope to understand the full repercussions of the product they’re building.
“There’s a reason why healthtech is behind other technology sectors — there’s more at stake if you get it wrong.”
There’s a reason why healthtech is behind other technology sectors — there’s more at stake if you get it wrong. Models that apply to other industries can be unhelpful, or even downright dangerous (see fellow doctorpreneur and founder of Patchwork Dr Jing Ouyang’s article).
When I see a healthtech leadership team that doesn’t include a clinician, I wonder how the company can truly judge the nuanced impact of what they’re building, and what’s more, deliver that message to their team. Sometimes healthtech startups need to whisk a developer or two off to a hospital to see their app in action, or drag a clinician into the office to give honest feedback to their team.
At the same time, whilst I consider clinicians to be vital in a successful healthtech company, we can’t do it alone. It’s called health tech for a reason; it represents an intersection between two worlds. Many a solely clinician-led startup has failed, and for good reason, because their lack of technical and business nous means they can’t translate their passion and experience into viable, scalable tech. It cuts both ways.
Innovators like nothing more than a thorny problem, and healthcare has a whole warehouse of them. The healthtech sector is brimming with life, but ventures that don’t put lived experience at the heart of their enterprises risk creating products that won’t or can’t be embraced at the grassroots. We must look to the frontlines of healthcare to produce the entrepreneurs who seek change for the right reasons, to ensure the impact that health technology has on all of us is as positive as we hope for.
Dr Lydia Yarlott is cofounder of Pando and a NHS paediatrician.