Healthtech is defined as the application of technology to solve problems in healthcare—think wearables, apps, cellphones, connected devices, software, databases, etc. It can also include medical devices, personalized medicine, and even at-home testing solutions.
The healthtech industry (also known as digital health) is growing rapidly. According to Rock Health, despite the global COVID-19 pandemic the first half of 2020 saw a record investment of $5.4B in the sector in the US alone. Healthtech products are designed to solve problems in healthcare related to
- improving patient outcomes
- reducing healthcare spend
- increasing access to care, and
- improving the patient and physician experience.
Many companies in the industry are started by nonmedical founders— technologists, scientists or business leaders who see the $4 trillion healthcare industry as ripe for disruption. But doctors, too, are playing many critical roles in this industry. Increasingly, mid-career physicians are reducing or ending their clinical practice to join or found healthtech companies themselves.
What leadership roles can physicians play in healthtech and how are they contributing?
Doctors have a clear understanding of problems they have witnessed and experienced within the healthcare system. And they often have a good understanding of how the healthcare system works and who its important stakeholders are. This can make doctors very well-suited to creating health products and solutions that will not only solve real challenges in healthcare but will also be valued and adopted by other healthcare professionals.
Some examples of physicians who founded health companies include:
- Kartik Modha, MD, a UK-based GP who founded myhealthspecalist. He recognized patients’ struggles to find private physicians recommended by other doctors and built a search and recommendation platform to address this.
- Suzanne Sysko Clough, MD, co-founded Welldoc a digital health delivery platform for chronic disease management through lifestyle interventions and behavioral coaching.
- Moira Schieke, MD, a clinical radiologist, founded Cubisimi to digitize radiology practices and create a new category of precision imaging.
- Nate Gross, MD, co-founded Doximity, the world’s largest medical network for physicians, and then went on to co-found Rock Health, a VC fund focused on digital health.
- Andrew Beck, MD, is a molecular genetic pathologist who co-founded and leads PathAI. The company seeks to use AI and machine learning to modernize pathology and improve diagnostic accuracy and treatment efficacy for diseases like cancer.
- Jeremy Friese, MD, MBA, founded and leads Verata Health, a company that has created an AI-powered Frictionless Prior Authorization™ platform to optimize both the patient and physician experience.
- Oliver Kharraz, MD, founder and CEO of ZocDoc, a platform that solves access to care through telemedicine.
Often physicians who found companies need to augment their executive teams with both technologists and product leaders who understand how to turn the insight into a product. They also need to include commercial leaders who can ensure the commercial viability of their solutions and then help them develop market access strategies.
Chief Medical Officer (CMO)
As mentioned above, many innovators who start healthtech companies do not have medical backgrounds. That’s why the Chief Medical Officer role can be one of the most critical hires for the success of a healthtech company. This role is a key executive position and is essential for companies that expect their product to be adopted and paid for by stakeholders within the healthcare system. The responsibilities of the CMO are broad and can include:
- Develop and communicate the clinical strategy
- Represent the voice of healthcare and patients inside a company
- Enable the company to find product-market fit and solve real (not perceived) problems in healthcare
- Ensure the company meets regulatory requirements
- Design studies to generate the evidence required to prove the products are safe, useful and cost effective
- Develop the product’s global value and reimbursement dossier
- Ensure that patient care and safety are a consistent company priority
- Communicate with medical advisors, key opinion leaders and medical societies
- Educate payers and other stakeholders in presentations on clinical utility
- Ensure that the company is designing its products responsibly and ethically.
If you want to look at the career paths of some incredible physicians who have left clinical practice to become chief medical officers in health companies, here are some great examples:
- Marissa Cruz, MD, of Limbix Health
- Carolyn Bradner Jasick, MD, of Omada Health
- Chet Robson, MD, of Walgreens
- Steve Bleyl, MD, PhD, of Genome Medical
- Bernard Esquivel, MD, PhD, of OneOme
- Ron Leopold, MD, MBA, MPH, ex-CMO of Lockton Companies
- Federico Monzon, MD, ex-CMO of Castle Biosciences.
While the chief medical officer role is critical for companies creating health products, many early-stage health startups often can’t afford to hire one full time. This is where new versions of this role are emerging; they include:
- Part-time Chief Medical Officer – This is where a chief medical officer can work for a company just a few days a month so the company gets the benefit of their expertise without the full salary costs. Federico Monzon, MD, one of our senior CMO consultants at MDisrupt, currently works with three separate healthtech companies in this capacity, dividing his time between them.
- Interim Chief Medical Officer – Hiring a CMO is a big decision and it’s important to choose the right one. You want a person with the skills and knowledge you need for your health innovation but also one who can fit in culturally with the rest of your team. It’s important not to go for long periods without any medical oversight at all. Companies whose CMO leaves suddenly may also require an interim CMO. In this case, a physician works with a company for a few months, filling the key responsibilities while the search for the long-term CMO is underway.
- Virtual Chief Medical Officer – This is a very new way of engaging a CMO for companies that need flexibility—think of it as a CMO on demand. The virtual CMO isn’t usually there physically (who is these days since the global pandemic?) but they work with companies to solve some key clinical issues, particularly early on. The time commitment can be anything from 2-10 hours a month as needed. It’s a perfect role for physicians who are still in clinical practice but want to experience working with healthtech companies in a lighter capacity.
These roles allow healthtech startups to have an executive-level medical voice at the table in a way that they can afford. They also allow physicians to add value to health companies, and try working with the founders and ensuring alignment with product strategy and company culture before making a full commitment to join.
Head of Medical Affairs
Medical affairs professionals often (but not always) report to the chief medical officer and are the medical face of the company. Many physicians take medical affairs roles, but non-MD clinicians, including nurse practitioners, physician assistants, genetic counsellors, and PhD scientists do so as well. The primary role of medical affairs is to educate, communicate, and engage the clinicians who will be adopting the product the company is developing. Medical affairs roles are ideally suited for clinicals who love to make sense out of data, develop content, and teach.
Their responsibilities can include:
- Building, managing and engaging Key Opinion Leader (KOL) programs
- Overseeing clinical trials
- Executing publication plans
- Developing education programs for healthcare providers
- Educating sales and marketing teams
- Developing content for patient education
- Coordinating data and communications at scientific conferences
- Gathering and sharing market intelligence
- Providing clinical and technical support to the clinical users of the product.
Some notable physicians who have had successful careers in medical affairs include:
- Leah Millheiser, MD, Senior VP of Medical Affairs at Hims and Hers
- L. Okey Onyejekwe Jr., MD, JD, VP of Medical Affairs at 23andMe and formerly Virta Health.
The medical affairs professionals are critical to the commercial success of a health product. They work hand in hand with the sales, marketing and product development groups within an organization. The key to adoption of health products is educating the providers who will be using them; this is the primary function of this role.
Adding Physician Leaders to Health Companies May Enable a Faster Path to Market.
These roles discussed above are just three examples of leadership roles that physicians can play. There are many more that we will outline in future blogs.
At MDisrupt, we believe that the most impactful health products should make it to patients faster. From reviewing and advising hundreds of companies, our insight is that healthtech companies that hire and engage healthcare experts early and often are the most likely to be successful. We currently have 31 physicians in our network who are looking for opportunities to advise and consult for healthtech companies.
Ruby Gadelrab, CEO + Founder, MDisrupt
Ruby Gadelrab is a seasoned health executive with a track record in successfully commercializing healthcare and healthtech products. Her expertise lies in developing high-impact B2B and B2C marketing, branding, and commercial strategies. Ruby served on the executive team at 23andMe as vice president of commercial marketing and has worked for many leading companies in the biotech and genetic spaces. Before founding MDisrupt, Ruby consulted for, advised, and mentored more than 25 companies in the healthtech space.