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Is There a Doctor on the Plane?

Is There a Doctor on the Plane?


In 2021, we saw a balloon of venture capital funding infuse the digital health market with a total of $29.2 billion invested. As the market has corrected and we have seen a slowdown in funding over the last few years, we are also starting to see that companies that had previously raised impressive rounds are struggling to find product market fit and capture value. 

This is not completely surprising. There has been this narrative that the healthcare industry is so caught in the last century (still using pagers and fax machines, for example) that it requires outsiders from the tech space to come in and “disrupt” it. In this narrative, physicians are seen as part of the “old guard” and barriers to innovation. However, given recent news of digital health companies struggling to keep doors open and large retailers coming into the primary care space only to find they couldn’t justify the margins, it’s clearer than ever that healthcare is a very complex and intricate system with multiple players, all with different value drivers and using different technology and tools. And it is a near impossible task to enter the market with a new piece of technology and expect the product to drive adoption and change without having deep expertise in clinical care or clinical operations involved throughout the product development cycle. 

Physicians can be a great resource to close this knowledge gap and create meaningful products for users that drive real and effective change in healthcare delivery. Every product team creating for the healthcare space needs to have a clinical expert deeply embedded in their organization to drive use case definitions, articulate pain points, define value, inform implementation, and perhaps most importantly, uncover problems or risks ahead of build. Medical training actually instills a lot of the same skills that great product leaders need to be successful. 

Here are the top three reasons you should hire physicians for your product teams:

1. Operating in ambiguity – Product teams are often getting inputs from multiple different sources: customers, prospects, internal engineering teams, executive leadership, and market trends. They have to decide what’s market signal vs. noise, what risks need to be mitigated now vs. later, and how to test hypotheses in order to produce a product roadmap that will dictate what and when products or features will be built. Physicians do this all the time in clinical practice. We gather data from multiple sources, including direct from the patient, family members, physician notes, labs, vitals, and imaging results. We have to decide what information is important and what information is irrelevant, then make a decision, often with incomplete information, about how to proceed. This requires a clear understanding of known and unknown risks, flagging signals that would justify a course correction, and creating a plan of how to gather the information you need to increase your accuracy. As physicians, we know that you will never know anything with 100% certainty; medicine is about knowing where to set the accepted risk threshold and what the steps are that you need to take to get to that threshold.

2. Systems thinking – Great product teams are driven by systems thinking, viewing components as part of a whole rather than in isolation to better understand things like causality, downstream effects, and feedback loops. This allows them to clearly articulate the customer’s pain point, design informed and intelligent solutions, and flag any potential risks or blockers. Physicians do this all the time in multiple stages of the care journey. Take writing a prescription for high blood pressure: You need to consider why the person has high blood pressure and whether a secondary hypertension work-up is warranted. Then you have to consider which of several first-line medications might work best for the patient. You might do this by taking into account randomized control trial research, patient preference, drug-drug interactions, and affordability. This means not only understanding the clinical indication of prescribing a specific medication, but also understanding all the steps of the process that would actually allow a patient to be adherent to treatment. You also need to consider what kind of systemic side effects both the high blood pressure and the medication might have so that you can appropriately counsel the patient. This framework of critical thinking that physicians use day in and day out can be transferable to the product world. 

3. Customer orientation – Being highly customer centric is a key tenet of the product role. Knowing what your customers care about, what their pain points are, and how value is measured are essential to creating a great product and user experience. It’s also crucial in clinical practice to get to the right diagnosis, counsel patients on management options, and improve treatment adherence. As physicians, we know that getting patient buy-in by building trust in the patient-physician relationship is the single most valuable tool in our toolbelt to truly help someone achieve their health goals. 

Integrating physicians into product teams is not just a nice to have, it’s a need to have. In a world where health tech is often trying to build the airplane while flying it, I hope there’s a doctor on that plane.

Photo: Anastasiia_New, Getty Images


Beginning her career as an internal medicine physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson, Carolyn Ward, MD laid the foundation of her career with a strong commitment to patient care and research. Her dedication to improving health outcomes led her to join Forward, a pioneering health tech startup, where she embraced the challenge of reshaping primary care. Driven by a passion for leveraging technology to enhance patient care, Carolyn then transitioned to Particle Health as Director of Clinical Strategy where she embarked on a mission to bridge the gap between clinical practice and technological innovation. Today, Dr. Ward is at the forefront of shaping the future of healthcare delivery. Drawing on her extensive clinical experience, she collaborates closely with the product team to identify and prioritize use cases for VBC organizations. She holds a medical degree from Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

This post appears through the MedCity Influencers program. Anyone can publish their perspective on business and innovation in healthcare on MedCity News through MedCity Influencers. Click here to find out how.



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