Blog Post

Can Health Care Learn from Startups?

April 4, 2016

by Kevin Rodondi, PharmD

April 4 marks National Public Health Week and the challenge currently being addressed by the American Public Health Association is to make our nation healthier in one generation. According to the APHA, Americans live shorter lives and suffer more health problems than peers in other high-income countries. Disparities in education, income, communities and access to quality food and health care impact health. I believe both access to health care as well as an increased focus on prevention are needed to achieve change and make the United States a healthier nation.

I think we can all agree on the goal, but the question is: Where do we begin?

Several weeks ago I was invited to be part of a panel of entrepreneurs for doctoral students in various health professions who were interested in learning more about startup companies in health care.  The energy of this group was extraordinary – the students recognized that nontraditional paths can lead to accelerated innovation, spurring change faster than the traditional health care system.

At one point, the students asked what I thought needed to be addressed in health care today. The answer may sound simple, but requires a huge shift in thinking: We need to talk to, and learn from, patients.

As health professionals, many of us are stuck in the way we do things and have a difficult time with change. While external pressures have altered the expectations of care delivery, many of us think we know how to meet these new demands because of our training.  Meanwhile, there are lessons to be learned from the startup world.  

The concept is simple – we don’t know if our ideas create value for our patients until we ask them.  We need to develop solutions from the patient’s perspective, not ours.  By empathizing with patients’ needs and understanding their challenges, we can better design solutions to achieve changes in behavior and health.  This is the approach of human-centered design.

We have incorporated elements of design thinking and discovery from the startup world into our leadership development programs for health professionals at Healthforce Center. We take the mantra from author, entrepreneur and businessman, Steve Blank’s customer discovery methods to encourage health care leaders to ‘get out of the building’ and conduct interviews with customers (patients).  This shifts us away from developing solutions that benefit health professionals, and toward solutions that meet the needs of those we wish to help.  It helps us better define our value propositions and customers.

Our results have been enlightening.  Many of our participants who come in with an idea for a program or project have shifted their ideas in response to getting outside the building and collecting data from interviews and customer discovery. Once they understand the needs of patients or customers, they are able to pivot in a different direction.

I have heard the words “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” used frequently from health care organizations as they look to reinvent themselves amid constant change and ambiguity. Human-centered design, or design thinking, pushes us to empathize with our patients, define, ideate, prototype and test our solutions.  This requires letting go of our bias and approaching problems with a beginner’s mind of inquiry.

So how do we make Americans healthier in one generation?  We start by getting out of the building and talking to people to find out their challenges in achieving healthy goals.  What is important to them?  Is it getting access to healthy groceries, or having the time to make a meal as a single mom?  Is it getting better health insurance, or understanding how to navigate a complex and confusing system of resources that should be available?  Do people care more about the risks of smoking or having hope for their futures?  Are they concerned with the safety of their neighborhoods or do they value a strong network of family and friends?  Let’s go find out, and then we can develop strategies to create the change we are looking for.

About the author: Dr. Kevin Rodondi is the associate director of leadership at Healthforce Center in addition to being an associate clinical professor and McKesson Endowed Chair in the School of Pharmacy at UCSF. He is also a national instructor in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program for entrepreneurship. He provides transformational leadership development to health professionals and health care organizations as well as training in entrepreneurship for the academic and startup communities bringing new ideas, technologies, and products to market. Dr. Rodondi has over 20 years of experience as a serial entrepreneur in health care. Dr. Rodondi received his PharmD from the UCSF School of Pharmacy and completed residencies in both clinical practice and hospital pharmacy administration.