Empathy, Curiosity Key in Making Medical Device Innovations Work

Houston—The challenge of healthcare innovation is that it’s about more than making technology work.

The bottom line is that any advance in health IT or medical devices must be considered with one thing in mind, said Todd Dunn, director of innovation at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, UT: The innovation is going to be used by healthcare providers on patients. “That’s the foundation,” he said. “You must start with empathy for the customer.”

Dunn spoke this week leading one of the first sessions for the new class of startups at the Texas Medical Center’s TMCx accelerator, a group of 11 medical device companies from across the country. Over the course of three months, the startups will participate in seminars on topics including legal, financial, and IP issues; fundraising and financial planning; the hospital procurement process and sales and distribution. The program culminates in a demo day in November.

Sure, Dunn told the group, technologists are infused with the belief that they are going to change the world. But he advised that the entrepreneurs should not to let that feeling bleed into arrogance. Instead, he stressed that they must constantly be curious, ask questions, and spend a lot of time being with the people who would be using the device.

This approach is already common in some industries, from the movies to furniture to consumer goods like shampoo and laundry detergent.

Pixar’s “Ratatouille” movie was successful, he said, because producers “did their homework,” watching chefs work in French kitchens—down to the angles of their elbows as they cooked—and wandering into a Paris sewer to see how the rats actually moved. Procter & Gamble [[(NYSE: PG)]] developed embedded-type systems in which employees lived in homes and worked with shopkeepers to better understand which products people want to use and sell.

“If they’re doing this for soap, furniture, and toys, why isn’t it common for healthcare?” he asked.

Dunn said being at the TMC can provide that same living lab for medical device startups. As they go about their visits to doctors, nurses, and other healthcare personnel, they should focus on discovering both points of frustration and hope, Dunn told the group.

“What are the aspirational desires of doctors and look for workarounds,” Dunn said. “That’s where they are innovating.”

Young medical device entrepreneurs need to figure out how their proposed innovations can perform customer jobs. “Nobody is a segment; they have jobs to do,” he said.

These jobs can be broken down into functional, emotional, and social jobs, concepts for which he credits Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen. For example, a blood pressure monitor has a functional job: giving a reading. “The emotional job is making sure Mom and Dad are OK,” Dunn said. “The social job is ‘I’m being a good kid by using this for my parents.’ ”

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