Building a new product for doctors? An MD/VC has some advice for winning over early adopters

Dr. Akhil Saklecha has seen many a startup stumble over the process of getting physician adoption of new technology. If a company fails to get physicians on board early in the development process, it will ultimately fail to get the feedback needed to move toward second- and third-generation products and, finally, into mass production. But […]

Dr. Akhil Saklecha has seen many a startup stumble over the process of getting physician adoption of new technology. If a company fails to get physicians on board early in the development process, it will ultimately fail to get the feedback needed to move toward second- and third-generation products and, finally, into mass production.

But physicians are busy people, not to mention that they’re under pressure from declining Medicare reimbursements and more competition from other providers.

Saklecha vets and invests in promising healthcare startups as a partner at Artiman Ventures, a firm focused on fueling development of technologies that fill “white spaces” in various sectors. He’s also an emergency medicine physician who’s worked at both the patient-care and operational levels, in hospitals and as former president and CEO of a emergency department service company.

That duality has given him some unique insight on what providers look for and how startups can tailor their pitches specifically for them. He packaged up some of his advice in an interview with MedCity News last week and emphasizes these points:

To capture physicians’ attention, a technology must solve a big problem that they constantly deal with. “When companies come and pitch to me on the VC side, as a physician I can get very quickly when they’re addressing a big problem,” he said. “It’s very intuitive.” As busy as they are, physicians are less likely to give attention to technologies that address small annoyances.

Be ready to explain how the technology can save money without sacrificing quality. “It’s very difficult to justify adding costs to the system,” Saklecha said. That doesn’t mean technologies can’t be expensive – but if they are, they must substitute for something that’s more expensive or add substantial indirect savings, he said. For example, products that shorten the time a patient spends in the operating room, get them out of the hospital quicker or deliver improved outcomes are often compelling. But the challenge there is that indirect savings are harder to pinpoint and put a specific dollar amount on. Entrepreneurs should explore that ahead of time and be prepared to talk with the physicians about it.

Consider how a product would affect each person who interacts with it. That doesn’t just mean physicians but also nurses, administrators and patients. For example, some lab tests being developed may get results to physicians and patients quicker, but they add more steps to the sample preparation process for nurses and lab techs. That’s much less appealing than a test that would save time for everyone involved.

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Understand the differences between health systems and physician practices. Physicians in a hospital may be significant influencers on the budget but often don’t control it and aren’t the final decision-makers. “So you’ll also need to convince the other side of this, which is the hospital system,” Saklecha said. “It’s not the same as when you’re talking about physicians in an office setting where they are the decision-makers.”

Look for a champion in the right place. Some physicians are heads-down focused on patient care. Others are more interested in research and innovation. You’ll most likely find the latter at an academic medical center, Saklecha pointed out. Look for physician leaders who make themselves available by speaking at events in the area.

Understand the differences between academic medical centers and community hospitals. A champion at a research hospital may help early on, but a great majority of the hospitals in the U.S. are pure community hospitals. “What works in an academic center doesn’t always translate into a community center, so you want to very quickly figure out how to make that transition,” he said.

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