Biotech & Health

Digital health startups can incorporate clinical expertise into business models — here’s how


Stethoscope and a calendar. Doctor's appointment and service in the hospital.
Image Credits: TravelCouples / Getty Images

Robert Krayn


Robert Krayn is the co-founder and CEO of Talkiatry. Previously, he spent five years as vice president and senior analyst at an investment management firm.

Early indications show funding to digital health startups in Q4 2022 fell so much, they’re close to levels last seen in 2019.

But the dollar amounts don’t tell the whole story. How you grow as a digital healthcare company is just as important as if you grow at all.

A company built for the long term should have clinical experts as part of its leadership to ensure that care is always based on the patient’s medical needs, as well as to maintain quality control.

Here’s a framework that digital health startups can consider:

Bring clinicians into senior leadership

The best-case scenario for a digital health startup is to bring on a clinician as a co-founder.

I speak from experience. My co-founder is a triple-board-certified psychiatrist who brings clinical expertise to everything she does. From evaluating product roadmap decisions with our technology department to strategy discussions at board meetings and managing our entire clinical team, her contributions are vital to the health and direction of the company.

Outside the C-suite, hiring clinicians as senior leaders with responsibilities beyond clinical practice is invaluable. The key is to ensure clinicians know they will report to another clinician, not a non-clinical executive.

Non-clinical leaders, including founders and non-clinical C-suite executives, should practice what they preach. They should consistently loop in their clinical partners for business discussions even if they don’t have an obvious clinical impact.

The main benefits of taking this approach include:

  • The clinical and non-clinical partnership is more active from the jump.
  • Other team members and clinical staff will see and respect the inclusion.
  • Clinicians may uncover something that has an indirect but important clinical impact.

Beyond hiring clinicians in-house, startups should consider inviting clinicians to join their board of directors. Their presence on the board helps guide a company toward becoming an ethical and sustainable medical practice focused on helping patients rather than a technology company operating at the expense of patients.

This dedication to patient outcomes is a differentiator and should be reflected at every working level of a digital health startup.

Celebrate providers’ dedication

Dedicating resources and space to full-time providers allows them to focus more on patient care — the reason they got into medicine.

It also reinforces that they are part of a company that values their input, invests in them as W-2 employees with insurance and other FTE benefits rather than 1099 contractors and contributes to their career development.

Embrace ethics

Clinicians literally pledge dedication to patient safety and health outcomes in the course of their medical education, training and certification. Startups should embrace that ethos and enshrine the importance of ethical medical practices in their company policies and procedures. They should take inspiration from providers and treat people as patients not customers.

For example, consider forming advisory groups of clinicians to help guide innovation. The earlier clinicians are involved, the faster a startup can move and the better the outcome for patients. Marketing and product are two departments where early clinical involvement will lead to better and more ethical results.

Introduce a separate oversight function

Companies building digital health practices should consider having a separate clinical quality team that ensures the practice is growing appropriately. The goal of this function is to ensure the team of clinicians is well resourced and incentivized to focus on quality rather than growth.

Introducing a Continuing Medical Education (CME) benefit is incredibly important to make sure providers are updated on the latest developments in their specialty. In general, CME is not only required for maintaining licensure, it is also time consuming and expensive. If you don’t provide a framework for your clinicians to continue to learn, you are forcing them to do it on their own time and — intentionally or not — sending a clear message about what is important at your practice.

For example, at Talkiatry, we not only establish funds for our providers to use for educational activities, we also give them dedicated time off to complete CME programs. We have a dedicated education team led by a seasoned senior-level psychiatrist that includes other clinicians and non-clinical staff. It facilitates educational programs and resources while providing an outlet for team questions and unbiased answers from fellow clinicians.

It all goes back to quality

When it comes to digital health innovation, quality of patient care is the differentiator. Ensuring high-quality standards and clinical oversight will keep digital health startups on an ethical path and ensure the practices being built are sustainable, which benefits every stakeholder, including patients, providers and payors.

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