Health care wants YOU: 9 opportunities, 4 pearls for digital health startups

digital health startups - reverse pitches
A visual summary of reverse digital health pitches (illustration: CollectiveNext).

Boston’s digital health world is humming with tech talent, idealistic health care professionals and business-savvy accelerator organizations. The passion was palpable last week as 300-plus people gathered at MassChallenge’s latest Pulse@Check digital health meetup, hoping to turn their health care ideas into reality.

The event, hosted by Boston Children’s Hospital’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) and Cerner, a lead developer of health care IT systems, presented numerous opportunities and tips for digital health startups.

Reverse pitches: Calling all health tech entrepreneurs

In nine two-minute “reverse pitches,” health care institutions shared problems and needs they want startups to help solve.

  • Boston Children’s Chief Innovation Officer John Brownstein, PhD, and Cerner’s senior VP for Medical Informatics, David McCallie, MD, are looking for innovative apps that run on the FHIR interoperability platform, integrating with multiple EHR systems. These can be physician-, patient- or population-facing.
  • Harvard Pilgrim Health Care had two needs, presented by Patricia Forts, director of Innovation and Strategy: a senior-oriented social media platform to decrease isolation and loneliness, and a big-data-based 360-degree view of HPHC’s 1.2 million plan members.
  • Massachusetts General Hospital’s Healthcare Transformation Lab (HTL) is looking to leverage technology to reduce cost, increase access and quality of care, and reduce burnout. Or, as David Ting, MD, put it, maximize the hospital’s “treasure, time and talent.”
  • The biotech company Shire, represented by Dawn Irish and Doug Kerr, MD, PhD, wants to find solutions for rare diseases without patients having travel to clinical centers.
An event for digital health startups
(Greg Weintraub photo)
  • Humana, represented by Dave Peak, VP of Digital Strategy & Innovation, sought general solutions to decrease health care costs and improve members’ health and wellness.
  • Servier, a French pharmaceutical company represented by David Guez, MD, called for solutions to accelerate innovation and access to the market.
  • Sunovion, a Massachusetts pharmco specializing in neuropsychiatric conditions, wants solutions that “redefine the health care experience beyond drugs,” said representative Georgia Mitsi.
  • Planetree, a nonprofit that coaches organizations on delivering more humane, “high touch” care, wants to provide faster feedback to physicians and health care organizations, said exec VP Alan Manning.

4 tips for health tech innovators

panel offers tips for digital health startups
(Greg Weintraub)

A panel discussion, led by Dylan Martin of BostInno, offered advice for emerging digital health startups. Here were the big take-aways.

No1 Know your goals, but also understand the institution’s goals and pain points.

In other words, do your homework. Some hospitals will want to build, some will want to buy something off the shelf and some will want to partner.

“Understand what we’re trying to solve for, and how you’re different from other startups addressing the same area,” said Lesley Solomon, executive director of the Brigham Innovation Hub. “It’s OK to ask questions to learn how the academic center operates.”

Here’s one example: “We like opportunities to spread our clinical know-how,” said Carla Small, senior director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s IDHA. She cited the KidsMD skill developed for Alexa-enabled devices, which offers information on fever and dosing of common OTC medications.

No2Incorporate open communication standards like FHIR.

Interoperability standards are where the industry is moving, said Sam Lambson, senior business strategist at Cerner. Coding across EHR systems frees innovators from figuring out how each hospital’s internal IT department works and how to get data out of EHRs.

“You don’t want to reinvent the wheel each time, for each client,” he said. “Instead, you can have more value-based conversations.”

Of all the data standards, “FHIR is the most well thought through,” said Brad Diephuis, CEO of Herald Health and a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. While you likely will never get a complete “plug and play” experience at hospitals, he added, FHIR will get you close.

No3Find a clinical champion within the health care institution you want to partner with.

“Don’t expect the [hospital’s] innovation team to find a clinical champion,” said Solomon.

These folks don’t have the time to shop ideas around all over the hospital, she said. You will need to make your own match through networking and direct outreach to clinicians.

No4Be patient, flexible and honest.

Don’t expect agreements to happen quickly. Hospitals have complex workflows and vetting systems. “We’re on it, but it’s not going to be a 30-day turnaround,” said Solomon.

Be willing to engage with hospitals and explore different ways of working together. When seeking a health care solution, hospitals can decide to build their own system, buy one or partner with a startup.

“Don’t overask and don’t impose,” said Lambson. “People are busy. And don’t make unsubstantiated claims. Don’t say you’re ‘in talks’ with someone if it was two minutes at HIMSS.”

Health care innovations on parade

Applied VR among many digital health startups Here were just a few of the great digital innovations on offer at Pulse@Check. Applied VR, whose virtual-reality headsets will be tested at Boston Children’s as a means of calming and distracting kids undergoing medical procedures. Propeller Health, whose connected inhalers report missed doses or problems with inhaler technique, track data on dashboards and feed into a public health “heat map” that shows where asthma cases are clustering. NumberOne, a Boston-Children’s-grown biofeedback system to help people do Kegel exercises the right way.

Twiage was among many digital health startupsCHRiS (CHildrens Research Imaging System), a tool developed at Boston Children’s, helps physicians in different locations view and work with patient image data together. Twiage connects paramedics with emergency room staff, allowing triage nurses to capture data gathered in the field, ask clarifying questions and view patient photos and videos — all while the patient is en route to the hospital.

Boston Children’s is exploring opportunities with a number of the innovators who exhibited. Watch this space for further developments!