The Promise of Increasing Clinician Collaboration in Digital Health

As questions swirl around digital health developments, many wonder how to identify which innovations offer the most potential. How can healthcare professionals and systems determine which technology will deliver meaningful benefits? And as the best and brightest in medicine and technology collide, how can they successfully collaborate? Lately, more clinicians are feeling drawn to advisory or leadership roles in digital health development, and it’s clear that many investors welcome their expertise, explains Christina Farr, Principal and Health-Tech Investor at OMERS Ventures.*

What Digital Health Has Learned From Its Mistakes

Most big tech companies have had a hand in healthcare at one point—some have had a stronger grip than others. Amazon shut down Haven, its joint venture to fix employer-based healthcare. Other companies, like Microsoft, have doubled down on investments in healthcare and artificial intelligence (AI). At one point, Apple CEO Tim Cook even claimed that the company’s greatest contribution would be “in health.”

Despite showing promise initially, many technology companies have failed to deliver. Ms. Farr attributes this to three main challenges:

  • Fundamental differences between the medical and technology communities: “Combining doctors and engineers on a single team can be like mixing oil and water,” says Ms. Farr, as the ways in which they work and think can be quite different. “For example,” she says, “an engineer may be excited about an idea, but a doctor will zero in on the risks and how the idea may or may not benefit a patient.” This predicament can lead to mounting tensions on cross-functional teams. “Those of us who follow technology innovation in the healthcare space have seen this play out time and time again,” she says.
  • Ventures that run counter to a company’s business model: Technology companies often try to force something to work rather than understanding what fits naturally within an existing business model. “A company like Google that sells ads from searches could easily stray in attempting to get into healthcare,” Ms. Farr cautions. “Yet, one of the best things they've done is work to improve the quality of medical condition search results on the platform. This has been successful because it fits naturally into their business model.”
  • Misalignment around the mission at hand: Many technology companies that have ventured into healthcare have not found internal alignment around “whether they wanted to augment the healthcare industry or disrupt it,” Ms. Farr says. Akin to the challenge of combining the medical and technology communities, this kind of misalignment can create irreparable tension and halt progress before it even starts.

How Health Tech Can Serve Social and Medical Needs

Fortunately, the health-tech industry has learned from its past mistakes. Venture capital (VC) firms are now partnering with hospital systems. For example, General Catalyst and Andreessen Horowitz have both hired leaders out of hospitals, and these individuals are guiding much of the decision making.

Healthcare needs—and innovations crafted to meet them—occur at the intersection of the more social (e.g., depression, struggles to access transportation) and the more medical (e.g., cancer treatment), explains Ms. Farr. Patients have some mix of social and medical needs. Digital interventions serve some mix of those needs: For instance, home monitoring tools for seniors and telemedicine consult kiosks in rural areas both address some combination of the social and the medical.

For a few years, around 2011 to 2015, the focus of health tech was on the “worried well,” meaning those who were already healthy and primarily interested in optimizing their fitness. Now, though, there is a greater focus on—and more successful attempts from—companies innovating to serve patients with high social needs. These include efforts to fill care gaps, add resources to care deserts, and combat health inequity. Digital interventions for mental health also come to mind. For those who have lower social health needs but higher medical health needs, advances in biotech and pharma are emerging, with new cancer treatments and maternal medicine services. Furthermore, the worried well population is a group that many VCs will be thinking about in the coming years.

How VC Needs Clinician Leaders

Many healthcare professionals remain skeptical of tech innovations for healthcare, given how overhyped some past innovations have been. But the health tech industry “is no longer amateur hour,” says Ms. Farr. There is an increased recognition of the need for collaboration between healthcare and tech. Doctors and engineers are showing an openness to learning from and acknowledging how much help they need from each other. It can be argued that healthcare needs clinical minds focused on entrepreneurship and leaning in as decision makers.

Many startups are highly receptive to this notion, and some doctors seeking avenues to improve healthcare outside of their practice are taking on Chief Product Officer roles, rather than solely providing clinical input. In fact, Ms. Farr speculates, the success of the new generative AI tools may rest on clinicians being brought into the product journey.

Historically, medicine “has been a very entrepreneurial profession,” observes Ms. Farr. At this moment, when VC funding is down and some potentially impactful healthcare solutions are struggling to come to fruition, bringing physicians further into the VC world is a necessary next step to create significant opportunity.

An Invitation to “Clinicians Who VC”

In an effort to create an easier onramp for medical professionals interested in VC roles, Christina Farr has just cofounded a Slack group for clinicians who want to learn about a venture called Clinicians Who VC. The group was established to increase the participation of clinically trained professionals in digital health investing. The group welcomes seasoned investors who want to share and discuss deal flow, as well as those new to investing who want to learn from a supportive community. Early interest has been high, and they are carefully building the right culture. To ensure broad care team representation, the group is seeking nominations for a broad range of clinicians, including physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and advanced practice clinicians.

Christina Farr is an investor at OMERS Ventures specializing in health tech. She started her career as a tech blogger for VentureBeat before becoming one of the industry’s best-known health technology reporters at publications ranging from CNBC to Reuters news. She currently sits on the boards of several health-tech companies, and she provides strategic market and industry expertise to OMERS Ventures portfolio companies across Europe and North America. Ms. Farr holds graduate degrees from both University College London and Stanford University. In 2023, she became a Co-Chair for Fortune Brainstorm Health and has been named a Rising Star in Venture Capital by Venture Capital Journal.

*Christina Farr spoke at the 2023 gathering of the TDC Group Executive Advisory Board Meeting in Napa, CA, which brings together top healthcare executives, academic researchers, and clinical leaders to discuss the changing landscape of healthcare as part of the Leading Voices in Healthcare initiative.

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