Health technology startups and innovators: Ignore physicians at your product’s peril

Keeping physicians out of the product cycle loop can hurt health technology innovation.

Although it’s best practice for tech companies to tailor their products to the end user, healthcare startups often miss the mark. The missing ingredient in the next great healthcare technology innovation? It just might be physicians.

Success requires true partnership between physicians and healthcare innovators, including medical device makers and health information technology firms, Mayo Clinic CEO John H. Noseworthy, M.D., said at an event hosted by MATTER, a Chicago-based incubator.

American Medical Association CEO James L. Madara, M.D., said at the event that tools for physicians often have a sound theoretical base. “But there is a complex system-engineering problem in moving it over the transom when you imagine that things in healthcare work more like a linear-manufacturing basis,” he said.

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But not all the blame falls to technology innovators, says one doctor. “Physician time is expensive,” M. Christine Stock, M.D., professor of anesthesiology at Northwestern University, wrote in an open letter to tech companies on Venture Beat. “Not many practices or IT companies are willing to incur the cost of participation in, say, EMR development, nor have physicians been willing to sacrifice personal income to help develop new tools.”

Her advice: “Leaving end-users (physicians) out of the product development process leads to unanticipated problems such as unintuitive and frustrating workflow, taxing documentation requirements and nonsensical and inaccurate cut-and-paste progress notes. Certainly, it takes time to learn any new tool, and new technologies do force workflow evolution. But once the adaptation period passes, our tools should improve documentation and workflow and enhance the assessment of practice patterns and quality measures.”

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That’s not happening, she wrote. “Digital tools do little to help physicians embrace and apply the enormous amounts of new medical information coming out each day.”

Bernard Tyson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, expressed similar sentiments in a recent interview.

Clinicians who are reluctant to give up their personal relationships with patients are often skeptical of digital health solutions that could interfere with those interactions, he said. And efforts to integrate digital solutions have been “extremely difficult” because the system had to account for any workflow changes that might impact the physician-patient relationship.

At MATTER, Noseworthy added that physicians and other health professionals, while optimistic about the promise of technology to improve care, demand evidence of efficacy before adapting to disruptive changes.

“Physicians are very data-driven,” he said. “Once you show them that what you’re doing is going to improve care, they will go along with you. It’s probably true that they’ve had a bad experience with EHRs. Then you come in and say, ‘I’ve got another good idea.’ Your job as inventors and engineers would be to show how this improves the joy of the work of a pharmacist or a nurse or a physician. You do that, and they’ll be all over you.”