As I sat through the AAMA 2017 Healthcare Connect Conference on October 12, an old family memory surfaced. In the early 1990’s, my grandpa bought each member of our family a video phone.  Our small family was dispersed between the mid-western and the southeastern states.  My grandpa was excited about being able to “see” us more often.  Unfortunately, his wish didn’t come into being in the way he envisioned – at least at that time.  The technology was too clunky, the bandwidth necessary not available and so it wasn’t long before we all returned to the traditional landline calls.  My grandpa didn’t live long enough to see smart phones come into everyday use with FaceTime, Skype and the like.  What he did see was that the ability to have every day video calls was going to change the world.  It just took a lot longer than first hoped.

That may be where we are sitting with digital health, augmented reality, blockchain, artificial intelligence, and other related technologies coming to healthcare.  There is a lot of potential for impact, but also a fair bit of developments that will need to come into place before these new products and services become integrated into our day-to-day use.  The speakers at the AAMA conference explored disruptive innovations in healthcare from the perspectives of entrepreneurs, providers, and investors.  I think my memory of grandpa and the video phone was triggered by one of the panelist’s statements that futurists are often too optimistic about the quick impact of a technology but discount too much the long-term impact.

In addressing the challenges of how new technologies will make their impact, the panels of speakers provided good advice to entrepreneurs coming into the healthcare space.  Here are some points that resonated with me:

Do a deep dive.  If you don’t live in the niche of the healthcare space you are addressing, you need to get a deep understanding about the realities of medicine and care giving.  Be aware of the healthcare regulations that may affect your product or service such as those addressing privacy, consent to use of data, cybersecurity, medical claims and advertising.  Consider the development cycle of the technology, particularly those regulated by the FDA which will generally need approval before generating a revenue stream.

Don’t go it alone.  Developing companies can benefit from partnerships and mentors.  These can be come from other companies with related and complementary technologies.  For example, if you are developing a text-based app that will transmit and receive patient health-related data, you may want to work with a company that already has developed a HIPAA-compliant platform instead of developing your own technical solution.  Help can also come from co-development arrangements with healthcare providers.  In many cases, such arrangements can help design the technology to fit into the existing workflow and address key needs of the stakeholders without creating additional work for the physicians and other users.  Clinical settings can require a fair bit of tailoring and iteration, but with a provider-partner, you may be able to compress the time it will take to develop a marketable product.

Consider how you get paid. There are a number of mechanisms from reimbursements to licensing to direct sales. A number of folks are highly skeptical about B2C models for digital health.  Direct consumer sales can be difficult if this path won’t even provide enough to recoup your development costs.  Be able to articulate your vision for getting paid and if possible, provide alternatives, because policy and models shift over time.

Be clear about your target metrics. Basically, how will you (and your customers) objectively measure the impact of your product?  Generally, healthcare providers are looking for solutions that lower cost and that hit a “pain point.”  They are looking for solutions that make the job of the physicians and nurses easier or allow them to work at a higher level.  Physician burn-out is a key issue as they increasingly are overwhelmed with data entry and other tasks that take their time away from patients.  Engaging with your target stakeholders early and often – hospitals, physicians, nurses, pharmacists or whomever your technology will touch – will help keep your development pointed at what they see as important problems and helpful solutions.  Related to this, gain an understanding of the financing for the organizations you are approaching with your product.  Different healthcare systems have different models and cost-savings in one may not translate in the same way to other systems.

Watch your language.  As a final note, these days the terms “artificial intelligence” and “blockchain” are buzz words that are cropping up in almost any presentation for healthcare technology.  One investor cautioned that outside tech-loving hubs like the Bay Area, these words are meaningless.  More importantly, they convey at best how some bit of internal technology works.  They do not, however, communicate what the technology accomplishes or what problem it solves.

Eyes on the prize.  At the heart of almost all of the presentations at AAMA and other related meetings I have recently attend is the mantra to not lose sight of the healthcare system and its purpose.  Even if bringing new technologies into healthcare is a more longer-term process than originally pictured – the focus remains the same.  Healthcare is about people, the people needing care and those providing it, not the underlying technology, that’s just the means to an end.