Why Product in Healthcare?

Sherman Leung
Mar 2, 2017 · 3 min read
Product is ideally an intersection of these three circles, but I’ve found that product in healthcare can sometimes feel out of alignment…

Healthcare is a highly specialized space that lacks cross-functional support. Product management is a highly cross-functional field that lacks strong specialists.

Both are incredibly complex and have a vague and ill-defined sense of effectiveness. However, there’s an inherent synergy between these two fields that reveal a need for strong product management in healthcare companies.

Healthcare lacks interdisciplinary leaders

The fragmented and deeply functional divisions in healthcare fall out of a legacy of specialization in the field of medicine. Primary care practitioners — representing the last bastion of the healthcare generalists — have declined due to economic pressures over the past 50 years. With a 1/6 of our GDP going into the U.S. healthcare system, overspecialization has become a costly imbalance because of a lack of generalists working cross-functionally in healthcare.

This is where product managers come in. Our ability to work across specializations is important for product teams, but it’s especially critical for healthcare product companies. In healthcare, every aspect of a company becomes more specialized: salespeople have to understand healthcare’s complex financial incentives, operational folks have to emphasize and connect across more specialized stakeholders, engineers have to securely handle sensitive healthcare data, and designers have to understand a particularly challenging set of user behaviors.

As any PM in healthcare will find, there’s an overwhelming number of stakeholders in healthcare and also in the companies we work in to change it. Like the primary care provider, we serve as the last bastions of generalists in our products and industry. In many ways, we solve a latent problem: overspecialization and fragmentation in healthcare companies will never seem like obvious issues until it becomes too costly.

Business Strategy vs. User Empathy

This divide is core to the PM role, and it’s a tension that is particularly tough to balance in healthcare but of utmost importance. To illuminate the nuance here, let me take two extremes: electronic medical record (EMR) companies and Better.

EMR companies (particularly the market leaders) had the right strategy. Layered on top of an institution’s need to record and track medical expenditures, these EMRs leveraged a strong financial incentive to secure adoption — a trend that was catalyzed by policy’s meaningful use mandates. Despite their business sense, these companies failed to develop and prioritize user empathy. Few healthcare professionals feel empowered and eager to use EMR technology. Even fewer would characterize EMRs as being innovative or user-empathetic.

On the flip-side, a lot of healthcare ventures (particularly those in digital health) often start with focused need-finding and a foundation of user empathy but are unable to find sustainable business models to support their growth. Enthusiastic users, a well-designed product, and strong user empathy are important but it’s product-market fit that really creates a business. All too often, the complicated market dynamics of healthcare, and the overwhelming task of threading product-market fit with the thread of user empathy become the insurmountable obstacles that kill a business.

The ironic truth is that EMRs are still around while plenty of healthtech startups are not. In healthcare, business strategy alone can often win out without user empathy. But for an industry founded on patient empathy, poor healthcare products underscore an uncomfortable tension for the healthcare professional — how can I practice empathy when I’m surrounded by a lack of it?

As PMs, I believe we’re not only called to bridge this tension but to thrive in it. Strong healthcare products need to find a synergy that drives solid strategy and sustainable growth through deep customer empathy (and vice-versa). This inherently needs to be derived from a deep-seated fluency in articulating strategy and understanding our users. Armed with this, we must resist complacency in compromise — healthcare deserves better!

Sherman Leung

Written by

Investing @AlleyCorp, aspiring physician-investor/innovator