Figure 1. How do you get business ideas when those who are successful are too busy to help?
Many digital health innovators struggle to get access to doctors to validate their business ideas because doctors tend to be under time pressure and they tend not see the direct benefit of consulting with a health innovator. In addition, the market is saturated with new apps and medical devices that promise the world and often mean more unpaid work for doctors. Couple that with the fear of losing control and the concomitant risk to their patients’ data security and you can see why accessing doctors for interviews is so tricky.
Here is how we at FoundersLane, a corporate venture builder with a strong focus on digital health, think about getting access to doctors for user research.
Events Might Be Your Lowest Hanging Fruits but Won’t Take You Very Far
The obvious first step is to attend events in your area. In Berlin, for example, you might be well served to attend the monthly Digital Health Forum hosted by the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH), where researchers, healthcare professionals, corporate innovators, and investors attend. The evening includes short talks and an open mic session where people can pitch their ideas or look for collaboration partners. Afterward, there is networking with food and drink.
One other great opportunity to reach doctors is at the annual Future Medicines Science Match. Clinicians and researchers give three-minute talks about their work, and afterwards, you have a chance to talk to them. It is like speed dating for science. Another opportunity to watch is Hacking Health, a worldwide event. It might not get you the volume of interviews you will need, but it is a good start.
There may be similar type of events in your area or available to attend virtually. MeetUp or Eventbrite are a good place to start your search.
But How Will You Be Met on an Equal Footing?
Trying to navigate the intricate ecosystem of healthcare institutions presents a greater challenge. Most healthcare systems are famous for their large number of market failures, information asymmetries, disincentives, and vested interests. You need to spot those if you want to have a real chance at creating a solution that can thrive within the existing reality, or it will get killed quickly.
Secondly, medicine is based on science, and most doctors expect that people who aim to change the way they work also possess a strong scientific and medical literacy. It is next to impossible to find a specialist who will want to work with you unless they feel that you can understand them. One inappropriate wording in your email and scan of your LinkedIn profile, and your request to meet could fall into the “waste of time” bin.
Get a Doctor on Your Team
In most medical institutions, hierarchies are still active, and doctors prefer to not have to spell out everything for the intermediaries. As an outsider with a non-medical background, some of your questions might be seen as too basic, leading doctors to think that they do not have the time to get you knowledgeable enough to have a meaningful conversation. With a doctor on board, even if it is just in a consultative capacity, doctors might be curious about the views of a colleague who brings a fresh digital health lens to a topic. This connection builds rapport much quicker through shared “emergency room stories.” From a user research perspective, there is of course nothing wrong with bringing an unbiased view to an interview, but you might not get the right amount of access to practitioners without bringing along a fellow doctor. Nothing is quite as powerful as combining a user research expert with a medical expert. If they work well together, you will gain massive synergies from having them conduct interviews in pairs.
Find the Right Interview Partner
The critical question: How close the person you are interviewing is to the situation you are developing a solution for? It is tempting to ask senior doctors because of their experience and standing within their chosen fields; however, they might not be the ones who will use your application day to day. Their insights might still be valuable, but just make sure you get a comprehensive view by asking representatives of all levels of hierarchy.
Also, be aware that there might be stark differences in the answers you get from hospital-based doctors versus those working in an office. Try to get diverse views early on, and do feel free to bring up diverging observations you had in previous conversations with the doctors. They might be very good at helping you make sense of differing views so that you get a better idea of whom you should speak with next.
Craft a Sensible Value Proposition for Your Interviewees, Not Just for Your Product
You are more likely to get a positive response if your message gets the following points across:
- You already have a clear idea of how your solution can improve their care for patients, for example, by highlighting relevant peer-reviewed publications that inspire your product vision.
- You also improve clinical workflows, for example, by reducing the overhead workload coming from administrative tasks.
- Ideally, you aim to fulfill an essential need of the physicians you are talking to, not just to their patients’ needs. If they get intrinsically motivated to contribute to the development of your product, you are clearly on to something.
- You consistently provide attention to detail and signal a strong commitment to high medical quality. For example, there cannot be any typos in a mock-up, especially not in medical terms (a common mistake by product teams, for example, seems to be writing “diabetis” instead of “diabetes”—doctors will call you on that immediately).
- If you have a budget, offer them some form of payment or token of appreciation. People in most health and care systems tend to think that doctors provide all sorts of services free of charge. Avoid being put into that basket.
- Set a time limit of between 15–30 minutes (scripted) to show that you are mindful of their busy lives. Avoid asking for a lunch meeting—few doctors have such a luxury.
Develop Your Outreach Strategy
It is great to start with warm contacts: people you already know or people to whom you can be introduced. Sometimes it helps to work with consultants or external parties who have a strong network. This can be expensive and time-consuming at first, but with every contact you make, you can snowball your way to more contacts by asking them to refer you to colleagues. Getting a referral has a dual benefit: You get to talk to at least one more person, and the person who refers you is giving you a soft validation that your idea (and you) are good enough to invest that social capital into an introduction.
However, expect that you will have exhausted your list of warm contacts sooner than you would like. So, start to work several channels at once from day one. To begin with, there is, of course, cold contacting. In many countries you will not find too many doctors on LinkedIn, so we typically extend our research to the websites of academic institutions, such as PubMed (where you can often find contact details of the first author), ResearchGate, or even book appointments through pages like Doctolib.
But do not stop there. You should never underestimate the power of social networks including Facebook groups, where people are more open to casual dialogue. You can also read through existing comments to get first learnings and identify individuals who might particularly enjoy talking to you (plus, you will know how to craft a tailored message for them).
As stated before, also go to events and trade fairs. Just be wary of offers to pay for an exhibition stand. They are rarely worth the money or time. Symposiums, where multiple stakeholders meet to discuss an academic topic or social problem over food and drinks, is an ideal setting to chat with people who hold in-depth knowledge about the context relevant to the solution that you want to build. Furthermore, many clinics, universities, medical chambers, or even financial service providers focused on doctors offer free evening workshops on specific topics to specialists. Here, you can quickly find 10–20 doctors of high relevance to your work. The events are typically followed by joint dinner and drinks, so there is a chance to chat and network.
Similarly, speaking engagements and podcasts for doctors are great to build a public profile and a reputation among the medical community. You would be surprised how many doctors will end up cold-contacting you to offer help if they liked what you had to say!
If you plan to stay in the health and care industry for longer, it is well worth collaborating with recognized institutions such as medical chambers, public health authorities, doctors’ associations, and so on. You can maybe co-organize events on digital health with them or offer yourself for free as a sparring partner if they have questions regarding the impact of certain technologies on their daily work. Through this interaction, they can learn how you think and build trust.
Most first-timers in the healthcare innovation space find it frustrating how difficult it can be to get access to doctors for user research. However, the very process of overcoming these barriers is already making you a better innovator as you increasingly begin to understand the intricacies of the system. Over time, as your insights and reputation improve, this will become significantly easier, and you will have a hard-earned powerful advantage over your competitors.
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