In on Digital Health: the challenge for Information Technology companies

eight stepping stones in the process of new product development

Information technology companies face the difficult challenge to bring their road into health care in focus (Getty Images)

by Marta Gaia Zanchi & Anurag Mairal

Information technology companies seeking to expand their business in digital health and “let the customer drive product requirements and specifications” are in for a big surprise. After almost two decades of work in software, wearables, and sensors from new entrants in digital health, we are finding that developing successful health care technologies requires a very important shift in the way organizations create products that meet the demands of their traditional markets.

From Customer Input to Customer Output

In all markets and especially in health care, successful innovation does not just respond to market inputs; it understands and realizes intended market outputs. To be successful, information technology companies new to health care that want to make their products available to providers and consumers in this space cannot take the position of technology experts answering requests from these same groups. Companies protest, “We are not the health care experts, we are technology experts and here to respond to what is needed!” However understandable this modesty might be, in most if not all cases, it does not result in successful commercialization. To develop and commercialize a product successfully in the health care space, technology companies must start by digging deep in order to determine what needs to be changed, and how the success of that change will be measured. Performing this deep research may require hiring talent, finding expert consultants, developing partnership and collaborations, or growing through merger transactions.

Disease Intelligence & Care Continuum Investigation

Understanding what needs changing requires in-depth research in order to thoroughly understand the health or disease conditions the company is considering addressing. And this understanding is only a first step; companies must also understand the treatment continuum, which involves identifying and mapping all the referral processes and treatment strategies. As one example, we recently helped an information technology client take a deep dive into the glaucoma disease space. The client was a software giant with no knowledge of ophthalmology, we helped the client understand the space through discreet inquiry (preserving the client’s confidentiality) and thorough primary and secondary research, in multiple countries of interest.

Opportunity Identification

A deep search to uncover all opportunities for change in the care continuum will generally result in the discovery of many needs, both in expensive, inefficient United States and in resource-constrained countries, as well as in most geographies in between. This is when companies need to start applying filters, targeting most promising opportunities for the organization.

New entrants should remain focused on demonstrating early success and good market adoption with very targeted new products, being mindful of their organizations’ need to internalize a know-how in innovation processes unique to the health care industry. They will be then in the best position to invest on these new processes, and solidify their presence in the marketplace.

Technology Mapping, Done Right

Information technology companies come to the health care space with a certain mindset: they are experts in a certain technology, and that is what they want to develop in a new industry. While their technological expertise is desirable, it becomes problematic when it is the only requirement companies want to meet. Information technology companies that play to only this expertise can put themselves in a very vulnerable position. Part of the work at this stage is developing a comprehensive map highlighting core technologies, products and potential adjacencies in various verticals (assets from unlikely entrants should be included, too, in many cases). This map should not only assess the strength and weaknesses of each, but also segment a technology landscape into near-term, medium-term and long-term solutions to help identify opportunities along a time continuum.

Technology Comparison Framework

The purpose of this research should be to maintain objectivity on the central drivers of innovation — outcomes, health/disease, care continuum analysis, and technology mapping — so that a comprehensive framework can be developed to compare each opportunity identified by the company. This includes ranking technologies to identify those that have the potential to strengthen client’s core and expand to business adjacency.

Stakeholders Perception

As potential opportunity-technology matches are identified, companies must also stay focused on whether there is strong alignment of the various stakeholders around each match. In-depth interviews with industry key opinion leaders, physicians and other stakeholders help company understand their perceptions and specific technology insights. In addition, in a world where most stakeholders have a presence in social media sites, we are discovering a wealth of new insights by listening to and engaging them on these platforms; physicians, for example, are using these sites with increased frequency in countries of the Asia-Pacific region.

From Products to Experiences — that is, Putting Products into Services

Information technology product companies that don’t have to deal with the same cost structure as professional service firms tend to shy away from developing services once they decide to enter the digital health space. With an irritated expression, they remind us that technology offers a way to “productize” aspects of the health care system, and that’s why they are in it: to offer industry a way of addressing its inefficiencies, taking over high-volume tasks, and aiding processes that are (ideally) driven by only data and rational judgment. While this is a valid premise, we argue that there are advantages for these companies to embrace a service-oriented mindset. After identifying opportunities and developing products, monetizing (commercializing) them requires embedding them in a health care service. That is what stakeholders in health care, whether they be consumers or providers, expect: that a process will be improved by a technology product and that the end result will be better outcomes. Information technology companies that understand this mindset will fare better than others: every interaction with the product has to result in a next step for the user along the continuum of care; and generally at some point along this continuum, a human is required.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Information technology companies that have an established history of successfully serving large, diversified markets often feel compelled to seed many innovation opportunities at once. We argue that depth, in digital health, is much more critical than breadth. Once compelling technologies have been identified that produce the right outcomes, companies should limit the number of active projects they undertake and focus on achieving the deep understanding required in this sector.

Far from being a comprehensive list, these are some of the stepping stones in the process of new product development that information technology companies new to digital health should commit to, early in their journey, to bring their road into health care in focus.