Doctorpreneurs help redesign healthcare

January 7, 2016, 5:45am

By Alicia Clegg, the Financial Times Limited 2015 on Business Day Live
Photo: istock/Business Day Live

AS A visiting scholar at Stanford University in 2012, Joshua Landy spotted student doctors in hospitals rummaging in their white coat pockets for their smartphones. They were using them to photograph unusual symptoms and test each other on what patients’ ailments might be.

Today, Dr Landy alternates working as a hospital critical care specialist and as co-founder of Figure 1, a Toronto-based start-up that allows doctors and nurses to share clinical images. "(Until now), as health-care professionals, we’ve had to resort to less than perfect communication tools, such as e-mails or texts, when a picture would do the job better," he says.

Such combining of medicine and entrepreneurship has spawned its own noun, doctorpreneur, and a number of networks including the eponymous UK-based Doctorpreneurs.

Surgeons in particular have always invented devices out of clinical necessity. What today’s innovators may have in mind, however, are not so much technical improvements, but using technology to help redesign healthcare, from the grass roots up.

As Arlen Meyers, a doctor and CE of the US-based Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, puts it: "A doctor can treat 20 people a day for his or her entire career — or build a device that allows a million people to be treated or not get sick in the first place."

Doctors starting a business have insights into where healthcare is failing and the pressures that medics face — although, as with insiders in other sectors, this is not always an advantage.

"When something has caused you a lot of pain, it’s easy to assume the problem — and hence the business opportunity — is bigger than it is," says Ophelia Brown, an investor at venture capital firm Index Ventures.

Physician entrepreneurs may have less variety of contacts and lack experience of running a company, raising finance or knowing how to fit into a world in which technical proficiency does not trump everything.

"The way we designed our privacy system (to exclude any identifying data from our servers) means even if our database were to get hacked and the images released publicly, apart from it being annoying, I would not worry about patient privacy because we always felt the best way to keep a secret is not to know it," says Dr Landy.

Available as a free download in 190 countries, Figure 1 attracts 50,000 users a day. Its strategy is to prioritise building a big community of users and introduce revenue-generating services later.

As a medical student, Mohammad Al-Ubaydli, who has a long-term health condition, was gratified when his doctors asked him to talk them through his history. Only later did he realise it was less because of his training, and more because he had seen so many consultants that only he had the full picture.

He launched Patients Know Best (PKB) in 2008, to give patients anytime, anywhere access to their medical records. Paid for by hospitals and healthcare bodies, PKB allows patients to access their medical records from their smartphone. The system also enables patients to consult doctors online and authorise anyone involved in their care to consult and add notes to their records.

Dr Al-Ubaydli initially struggled to gain the ear of other doctors, especially his younger peers, who worried that empowering patients would expose their inexperience. So he cold-called specialists whose patients had complex conditions for whom a miscommunication could prove fatal.

In 2010, a paediatric gastroenterologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital purchased PKB for her patients, and other departments and hospitals followed. PKB now has customers in 60 hospitals, half in the UK, and raised £3.5m from venture capitalists in November for expansion overseas.

Sean Duffy, a medical student on Harvard University’s joint MD-MBA course, had the idea while an intern at consultancy Ideo, for a diabetes programme accessible to anyone with WiFi. He left medical school to found Omada with Adrian James, Ideo’s head of medical products. Participants weigh themselves on wireless scales, linked to a personal profile, and are paired with an online health coach and group of peers with a similar body mass index, who support each other in working towards their target weight loss.

The Financial Times Limited 2015