This article was originally published on Forbes.
As digital technology becomes ever more central to improving healthcare, we are seeing that governments, policymakers, industry groups and patients are increasingly focused on a fundamental question: what makes a digital health product truly fit for purpose? Within this debate, the role that doctors and clinicians should play in the development of new health technologies is being keenly scrutinised by both government and healthcare professionals.
This is certainly a welcome development. I have long believed that the only way to build effective products and services for healthcare is to make clinicians part of the process from the very beginning.
But just hiring doctors isn’t enough. You need to make sure that the clinicians on your team can effectively influence the development process and improve outcomes.
So, how do you succeed as a medic in tech? Here are some tips based on my own experiences, and those of other clinicians on our team.
#1 Embrace change
Having typically worked in a clinical environment like the NHS for many years, doctors who make the jump into startup life are often struck by how much faster things move. Of course, we all know that startups are built to be disruptive. However, the reality can still take some getting used to when you are switching from an environment where it can be very difficult to change even the smallest part of any process of established practice.
As Dr Shubs Upadhyay, a practicing GP and one of our clinical leads put it: “As a doctor, you often feel like change just ‘happens’ to you; it’s something that’s imposed from the top down. This means that in the clinical environment there is often a real resistance to change. In a tech startup, it is totally different. You are encouraged to identify things that could be done better and then change them yourself. This is inspiring, but it does require a different mindset.”
My advice would be to embrace this openness to change wholeheartedly. It can be disorienting at first but the medics I know who work in tech soon find this shift to be incredibly empowering. It can lead to new ways of thinking and problem solving that typically wouldn’t be possible in the clinical environment, and it can give you the opportunity to have an impact at a scale that is rarely possible in practice.
#2 Learn to combine your clinical training with new ways of thinking
Another contrast between tech and medicine is that clinicians and engineers often think about problems in different ways.
Dan Buckland, an engineer who trained as a clinician, has some great insights on this: “One way to think of the Engineer’s method is as a hybrid of the Scientist’s and Physician’s methods. The Scientist starts with a new set of hypotheses for each problem, and the Physician starts with a set of solutions that can be applied.”
This is something I have observed personally: Clinicians are trained to focus on each individual patient and to find a solution based on the tools and remedies that are available to them. In contrast, engineers and product designers are trained to think more holistically and to take a Design Thinking approach to solving problems centred on the users you’re creating something for. In healthtech, the real value comes when these two approaches are combined to build something new.
I have found that the collaboration between tech and medicine works best when doctors engage with product teams as much as possible and lean into the design thinking approach, while combining it with the medical and diagnostic principles that are ingrained in all medics.
Ultimately, both clinicians and engineers are natural problem-solvers with something fundamental in common: we don’t judge success based on abstract concepts or equations, but by the real-world impact - did we fix the thing we were trying to fix? Therefore, with a little hard work and a lot of open discourse, it is usually possible for teams to combine these two disciplines effectively. And once teams find that way of working, the results usually speak for themselves.
#3 Find a common language
However, making that open discourse work is not always straightforward. Both tech and medicine are very jargon-heavy disciplines and when the two are combined, minor misunderstandings can quickly lead to frustration or a poor end result.
To address this, we work hard to make sure that everyone on our team is operating from the same frame of reference. For example, in a recent discussion between our product team and some medical academics, we very deliberately set time aside at the start of the meeting to define our terms and make sure that everyone was clear about what was meant by certain key concepts. This might sound laborious, but we have seen first-hand how investing time in better communication can set teams up for success and make them far more efficient in the long-run.
The good news is that clinicians are typically well-versed at adapting their communication style to suit the context. But any medics entering tech should be prepared to really hone these skills. I would advise any multi-disciplinary healthtech team to make establishing clear communication a priority at the start of every project. Crucially, this doesn’t mean doctors adopting fully the language of product designers, nor forcing engineers to talk in pure medical jargon. Rather, it’s about creating new ways of communicating altogether. In fact, solving this communication challenge can often lead to better ways of working across the board, since finding a new way of talking about something can also alter the way you think about it.
Harnessing the best of both disciplines
Although establishing a successful working relationship between medics and engineers is not always easy, I firmly believe that the healthtech industry will only become truly transformational if it is able to successfully combine the best of both health and tech. Technological advances are of course essential. However, without the close involvement of medics and clinicians (and patients who, as the ultimate end users, must also be a key part of the development process) the innovations of tomorrow will always struggle to meet the most rigorous standards of testing and real-world usage.
And getting it right leads to not only better products, but to better professionals. I have learnt so much from working every day with designers, engineers, data scientists, academics, entrepreneurs and doctors, and the creativity and results that combining these different skills and mindsets can deliver continues to inspire and amaze me.
As my colleague Shubs puts it:
“We all have something to learn from one another. I’ve been able to contribute a lot to the product team I work with, but I have also learnt so much that I take back with me when I am working in clinical practice. My work in tech has definitely made me a better doctor.”