Digital health needs more physician entrepreneurs

By Neil Versel
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ArlenMyersJust as new physicians sometimes get caught unprepared for the business realities of an insurance-centric healthcare system because medical schools don't teach practice management, so too are even the most creative doctors often lacking in entrepreneurial skills because medical schools don't address that subject either, according to someone who is trying to remedy the situation.

"The biggest challenge to me is creating an entrepreneurial mindset in the physician community," said Dr. Arlen D. Meyers, president and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs (SOPE).

"I'm trying to engage the docs and empower them with innovation and knowledge." Meyers told MobiHealthNews. He said most innovation in healthcare and medicine leaves out doctors and patients, particularly in the lucrative fields of drug and medical device development.

In his view, about 1 percent of U.S. physicians have the right mindset to be successful entrepreneurs. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that there are about 835,000 active physicians nationwide, meaning that Meyers believes there are less than 9,000 with solid entrepreneurial skills. "My challenge is to change the culture, and it starts in medical school," said Meyers, a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and a 2010 Fulbright scholar.

It is quite a challenge. "Go try changing a university," said Meyers, a professor of otolaryngology, dentistry and engineering at the University of Colorado-Denver and an ENT at the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center, as well as a longtime entrepreneur himself. "I am trying to change people who have 2.7 trillion reasons not to change," Meyers said, referring to how many dollars the U.S. spends annually on healthcare.

Meyers is working from both the inside and the outside. He created and directs a certificate program in bioinnovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado for postdoctoral students who don't want a career in academia. He and other like-minded physicians incorporated SOPE as a not-for-profit organization in January 2011. The society has a LinkedIn group with about 6,500 members, and Meyers said it is adding about 300-400 people each month, not all of whom are physicians.

He has seen a profound change in the landscape in just a few short years. "Innovation and entrepreneurship education for physicians is at least getting attention [now]," Meyers said.

In the meantime, digital health has taken center stage, noted Meyers, who co-founded MedVoy, an early-stage, online platform for managing patient referrals. "These are the golden years for digital health," Meyers said.

However, interest could dry up if someone can link an adverse medical event to new technology. "One bad outcome and that's the end of this," Meyers said. He also expressed the sentiment that the proliferation of digital health incubators as accelerators is evidence that "this a bubble."

What the industry really needs is some regulatory certainty and an easier path to scientific validation of digital health innovations, according to Meyers. "There is no digital health infrastructure to test it," Meyers said. "I think NIH should create digital health research institutes, just like they do for devices and drugs."

The long-expected Food and Drug Administration guidance on mobile medical apps could provide some clarity as well, Meyers said. While the investment community generally dislikes regulation, uncertainty is even worse.

Still, he is optimistic that entrepreneurs can and must fight the status quo. "The system is so screwed up, we have to be morons not to fix it," Meyers said.

He is particularly bullish on telehealth. "I think the biggest opportunities have to do with non-face-to-face care in digital health," Meyers said. He recommended that entrepreneurs follow business models that supplement in-person care.