Health IT vendors must disabuse themselves of the notion that the higher standards of health tech, including the nascent digital health industry, are attributable to archaic regulatory frameworks. Regulation may have its foibles, but true health-tech innovators can and should hold themselves to a higher standard because it’s best for everyone — from both ethical and financial standpoints.
Tech must serve and satisfy its end users, and in healthcare, that generally means patients and providers, at a minimum. Routine tech failures and, in some cases, recalls can be embarrassing, but they don’t carry the same repercussions that medical tech failures can.
Failing in Healthcare Technology
“Build quickly, take failures in stride, and push improvements out as swiftly as possible.” It’s the “traditional” mantra of startups developing software. But this approach is in direct contrast with the medical device industry — which, along with shouldering the pressures of meeting customer expectations, must gain third-party approval for every line of computer code and each physical element within the final product.
That’s not to say that failure in itself is bad for healthcare technology. In fact, iterations are inevitable. A so-called 80 percent failure rate in the early stages simply acknowledges that truly compelling and efficacious technology takes time and iterations to craft.
For example, when my company, Epharmix, launched an intervention focused on helping care teams support mothers with postpartum depression, our first version failed completely. The technology was built by the book and with input from top maternal health physicians, but our users (mothers) didn’t engage, which is a nonstarter by any measure.
Interviews with the mothers led to a fuller understanding of the style, language, and frequency of engagement required. Not only did our next version work well for patients and care teams, but other Epharmix maternal health interventions benefited similarly, too.
3 Ways to Ensure a Higher Standard
The United States healthcare industry is finally making strides in the right direction by shifting the emphasis to value rather than “fee for service,” which is equivalent to pay per click. The onus is on all of us to avoid abusing the trust of established players, including healthcare providers and payers.
Overblown claims and false advertising are frustrating in any scenario, but they are particularly at odds with the moral imperative of healthcare. With these three steps, we can use early failures to ensure that we hold ourselves to the high standard that healthcare demands:
1. Set (and stick to) quantitative goals.
It’s easy to feel successful when you’re actually failing, so set clear performance targets for each department, and be sure managers and employees stick to them. Holding your firm to a high standard will help not only your company, but also the patients and healthcare players relying on your products.
2. Fail fast.
In the software development world, we talk about “shipping” products. The general consensus is that it’s better to ship a prototype to a designated user base, identify weaknesses, and improve upon them than it is to try to perfect the software in a vacuum, only to be surprised by failures when it’s too late. Failing fast makes it easier to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t, from both the developer’s and user’s perspectives.
3. Identify failures and find solutions.
Failures are valuable only when you identify them and use them to inform improvements beyond the narrow framework of each failure. Studying your own and others’ failures is the most important tool you possess. Identify healthcare IT trends to increase the user experience, robustness, and total value of the product.
In the general world of developing software, it’s standard to implement new tech, then learn from and improve on its failures over time. In the world of healthcare tech, that’s unacceptable; too many lives depend on the tech’s ability to fail fast and improve faster. It’s a standard that deserves to be held as high as possible.
Blake Marggraff is CEO of Epharmix, a company at the intersection of medicine and consumer technology offering interventions that use automated phone calls or text messages to manage patients’ conditions while collecting disease-specific data.