5 Key Pitfalls That Compromise or Sink Digital Health Startups

A guide for consideration by software developers, startups and healthcare solutions suffering poor adoption

These pitfalls may, at first glance, seem obvious and you’ll be tempted to go, no sweat, I’ve got this. If that’s your attitude then I can assure you now, you most certainly haven’t. Arrogance and self-belief may be useful personality traits in certain business environments but neither have any place in healthcare. Write these down, memorize them and apply them against all phases of product development.

1. Poor Design

Without a doubt, the most commonly raised issue for existing solutions and new-to-market products that rely on user input, whether patient or provider input. The refrain “the system doesn’t allow me to do x, y, or z” can be heard across every field of healthcare in America. This speaks to one single cause. Poor design based on a limited understanding of the ecosystem you are engaging with and as it’s a frequent refrain, many companies, in fact, the large majority, are at fault here.

You are producing AI and data-driven software that, while efficient at performing its assigned tasks, lack the ability to perform accurately or meaningfully as your data capture is incomplete. You’re not asking the right questions and offering your user the breadth of input they require for their responses. The result is an incomplete picture and as you’re probably all too well aware, in healthcare that can prove fatal at worst, and at best, result in, you guessed it, terrible adoption.

You’ve chosen one of the most complex ecosystems to distribute a product into. Not only is the healthcare sector incredibly diverse with wide-ranging needs to address the most complex piece of machinery on the plant (the patient), this ecosystem is already filled with a multitude of products that you need to be able to communicate with seamlessly. There is no standardized Windows, Apple, or Android platform to base development on. Healthcare is the programmer’s version of data hell and you need to be ready to toss out all your preconceived ideas out the window.

To develop an effective AI or digitally driven software solution for healthcare(we’re not referring to cutting edge medical devices and tools here, but rather the software that drives much of the industry) it’s time to go back to med school 101 and that involves being able to draw on a full picture. One that includes both patient and provider views. Fail either and you’re doomed. This might sound patently obvious, it clearly isn’t and it this lack of a proper appreciation for the issues faced in the day-to-day practices of patients and providers that undoes most new solutions.

Startups need to spend time in their doctor’s and patients’ shoes. Live with them, shadow them and develop systems that solve their problems without creating new ones. Only once you can relate to their experiences can you arguably develop suited tools and solutions. You can’t provide the answers when you’re not even sure which questions to ask. Embed yourself and learn first. Then do what you do best. Build solutions.

2. Inbuilt Bias

I’ve broached this topic before and it’s a critical one that speaks directly to patient safety. Depending on which areas of the United States you’re pushing your services into, you’re addressing a multilingual, multiracial patient and provider landscape. The time for developing solutions for a white middle-class patient has died a well-deserved death and is now ascribed to history. The fact that so few platforms address equitable access to healthcare successfully is almost criminal, not only from an ethical perspective but when viewed from monetizing any solution.

Dude, you just missed half your customers. Seriously. Do you know how many Asians, Hispanics, and other nationalities intentionally avoid using your solution because you’ve built bias into the system? What about the elderly? You’ve forgotten about half your market and that has two major consequences. Let’s examine both.

  • You‘ve just cut your income stream in half and potentially rendered your product obsolete by not making it inclusive. It will suffer from poor adoption rates and as users discover its limitations you will hemorrhage clients. Trust me, go ahead and design for privilege, intentionally or otherwise, and let me know how that turns out.
  • You‘ve developed a product that is in direct contradiction to healthcare’s much-vaunted goals of equitable and accessible care for all. We’re not there yet, but if your solution is part of the problem rather than seeking to address it, you can see where this is going right? EVERYONE, irrespective of race, color or creed should benefit or be able to benefit from your solution. If not, then it clearly isn’t fit for purpose.

Create products that are inclusive and allow for varying levels of access and when all else fails, still allow for human interaction. Do this well, and in the current market, you are ensured of spectacular success.

3. Flexibility

The ability to change and adapt to a fluid working dynamic like the one posed by healthcare is key to your product’s success. No matter how much homework you’ve done, how inclusive your system is, and how much money you’ve spent on testing, you’re dealing with human beings and ever-changing dynamics in terms of protocols and treatments. Build a rigid system that cannot be easily and rapidly fine-tuned and you will quickly find yourself in customer service hell.

IT companies often adopt an attitude of “fault tolerance levels”, waiting for the reports of glitches and flaws to mount up before they effect system-wide repairs. Healthcare is no different and if you want to really get a leg up on the competition, your ability to respond quickly and meaningfully is key. Not only will you reduce customer service loads, but your solution will also ingratiate itself with providers, who in turn, will ensure widescale adoption and brand loyalty. Win, Win.

Ignore issues, calls for updates, changes, and additions to a system and you’re committing brand suicide. At best, you’re alienating your customer and at worst, your inability to respond to requests for change can cost patients their lives. Neither outcome is desirable Build it so you can change it. Easily and quickly. This one aspect alone, coupled with simple and accessible customer service, will set your product light-years apart from competitors.

4. Understand the problem you’re addressing

This isn’t about poor design, although the two concepts overlap. it is about not correctly understanding the parameters of the problem you are seeking to address and this can have major ramifications when it comes to product adoption. One GP or a hospital that faces an issue is not reflective of the entire industry and problems can often be localized to an area or state. Do your homework. Understand the extent of the problem before you set about creating solutions.

Keep in mind that solutions don’t make users’ lives more complex. This is at odds with the whole idea of a solution and yet, the market is flooded with clever ideas that practitioners don’t need, much less have time for. Does your product address a widespread issue faced by healthcare workers, does the solution simplify their lives, and finally, is it simple to use. Tick all three or head back to the drawing board. Again, these are basics, but basics that are often lost sight of in our eagerness to bring our version of a solution to the marketplace. Any addition to a doctor’s workload that doesn’t translate into time saved and better patient outcomes is doomed to failure. Understand the problem you’re addressing and ensure the solution is appropriate.

Develop working models and consult with your users along every step of development. Changing tack is easily done when you’re in the development phase, less so when your distributing.

5. Accessibility

Possibly the most obvious of all, and yet, applications are still designed that will only function in the chrome browser, require the latest computers to run, and offer users complex and logic-defying UI’s. Dependence on a stable internet connection is another issue faced by many applications. kill the internet and you kill the application. While many solutions require an internet connection for functionality, many don’t, and making a system available offline increases reliability and access. 

Offering your solution across all platforms and browsers also greatly increases adoption and again, for a world that loves digital but doesn’t enjoy total coverage, don’t ignore your users that don’t as yet have access to smart devices. Integrate voice for people who don’t own a smartphone, who may not have internet, or who may simply not be familiar with our technical world. They also require access to medical help and the solutions you are creating. Be innovative and include them.

Ensure application UI’s are user-friendly, that visually impaired users can access the system and that font sizes can be adjusted. Inclusivity is your guiding principle for any healthcare application, particularly patient-facing solutions.

Going Commercial

There are fortunes to be made and lost in healthcare, especially in the trending arena of digital health. That hunger for profit and the need to generate turnover is often achieved at the expense of the patient and the provider. If your sole purpose is revenue, your experience with healthcare will most probably be singular and short-lived. The industry is unlike any other and while commercial interests do currently skew the medical landscape there are moves afoot to set the world to rights,

Idealists, purists, and ethical professionals want to ensure a return to patient-focused medicine, where the patient serves as both the motivation for and the final purpose behind the industry. Again, companies who are perceived as furthering the commercial exploitation of healthcare and patients will be spurned for their more ethical competitors. This patient-focused movement is alive, well, and growing within healthcare. Developers would be well placed to ensure their primary focus is improving the lot of the patient, even if that means occasionally forsaking profits and shareholders.


Medika Life has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Medika Life

This article lives here: Healthcare Policy and Opinion5 Key Pitfalls That Compromise or Sink Digital Health Startups
Robert Turner, Founding Editor
Robert Turner, Founding Editorhttps://medkoin.health
Robert is a Founder of Medika Life. He is a published author and owner of MedKoin Healthcare Solutions. He lives between the Philippines and the UK. and is an outspoken advocate for human rights. Access to basic healthcare and eradicating racial and gender bias in medicine are key motivators behind the Medika website and reflect Robert's passion for accessible medical care globally.

More from this Author