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Why partnerships between startups and healthcare providers is crucial


Tue, 10/24/2023 - 12:00


In this recap, leading experts share the importance of fostering a robust healthcare startup-provider ecosystem in driving innovation and enhancing patient care, while offering insights into overcoming associated obstacles. 

Amidst a backdrop of digital transformation and the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare landscape has been reshaped by an explosion of technology-enabled innovations, spanning care delivery to patient experience. For startups brimming with innovative solutions, endorsement from healthcare providers could help move solutions from bench to bedside. 

IHH Healthcare, in collaboration with SGInnovate, brought together a vibrant ecosystem of panellists at the Igniting Innovation in Healthcare event on 20 September 2023. The event converged a diverse array of stakeholders, from hospitals and payors to digital health innovators and investors. 

One panel discussion, How to get through the window or door: ways to effectively partner with a healthcare provider, explored the importance of startups in the healthcare innovation system to consider the perspective of healthcare providers. The panellists included Dr Melvin Heng, Executive Director and Group Chief Executive Officer at Thomson Medical Group; Dr Ritu Garg, Chief Growth and Innovation Officer at Fortis Healthcare; and Dr Num Tanthuwanit, Partner, Healthcare, Strategy & Transactions, Ernst & Young (ex-Omni and Bumrungrad Hospital CEO).  

From left to right: Mr Peter Chow, Dr Melvin Heng, Dr Ritu Garg and Dr Num Tanthuwanit.

With backgrounds spanning entrepreneurship, clinical practice, and hospital administration, each panellist brought a wealth of insights to the table. Mr Peter Chow, Acting Chief Executive Officer at IHH Healthcare Singapore, moderated the panel discussion. Together, they delved into the nuances of how startups should present their “pitch” to healthcare providers, ensuring their innovations transition seamlessly to real-world applications. 

The crux lies in startups and providers working together closely to address each smaller piece of the puzzle. It’s important to bear in mind that these individual challenges, when solved, collectively lead to broader innovation." 

Dr Melvin Heng, Executive Director and Group Chief Executive Officer at Thomson Medical Group

Behind the door

In today’s hyper-competitive healthcare environment, embracing novel approaches isn’t just advantageous—it’s imperative. “The only way to survive or thrive is to do things differently, which means there is an inherent interest in innovation,” said Dr Garg. 

For healthcare providers seeking to stand out in a saturated market, it’s important to proactively deepen their engagement with the startup ecosystem. But what precisely are these providers scouting for when it comes to innovations? Dr Garg shared three core tenets: improvements in clinical outcomes or patient experience, notable reductions in cost, and increased accessibility. “If startups tick any of these boxes,” she stressed, “then there will be evident interest.” 

Panellists and professionals gathered at SGInnovate’s office for a fruitful discussion.

Yet, innovation is rarely about single, monumental leaps—it’s more often a series of incremental advancements that culminate in a larger, game-changing development.  

Related: The pathway from drug discovery to commercialisation 

“Consider the trajectory of innovations in radiology,” said Dr Heng, drawing insights from his diverse roles as a managing director of a hospital, entrepreneur, and now a healthcare provider. Initially, the technology was mainly used to identify polyps in the colon. Today, healthcare professionals leverage artificial intelligence (AI) in a suite of radiology tools with the hope that one day, these tools can assist in more advanced tasks such as predicting sepsis risks from biomarkers and radiological images. 

“The crux lies in startups and providers working together closely to address each smaller piece of the puzzle,” added Dr Heng. “It’s important to bear in mind that these individual challenges, when solved, collectively lead to broader innovation.”  

Thinking outside the box

True innovation recognises that healthcare delivery extends beyond hospital walls and addresses the more nuanced concerns of providers and patients alike. 

Dr Garg articulated this perspective, emphasising the clinician’s role, “Many aspects of healthcare take place outside of the hospital too, from wearables to direct-to-consumer solutions.”  

She cited the barrage of patient queries faced by clinicians in India as an example. “Doctors’ [contact] numbers are readily available, and patients tend to text them all through the day and night. So, if there is an algorithm to automate responses to frequently asked questions, that would free up a clinician’s bandwidth,” she added, underscoring the need for innovations that address the micro-challenges clinicians face daily. 

While healthcare, by its very nature, is a high-stakes field with rigorous regulations, not every innovation needs to be groundbreaking. Some solutions can address the everyday inefficiencies that plague the healthcare system. “In places like Singapore, where space is scarce, having a more efficient queuing system is in itself a major innovation,” said Dr Heng.  

Drawing a parallel to sectors ahead in customer-service innovations, he added, “Just like how you can book a restaurant or flight effortlessly, we need to bring these innovations into the healthcare environment.” 

Dr Tanthunawit chimed in, highlighting the importance for startups to have an open mind to work with healthcare providers to customise their products, if required. Reflecting on his experience, he noted, “Too often I’ve seen startups coming in with a great idea, but it might not necessarily address an immediate need or a pressing patient safety concern.”  

He illustrated his point with the example of PreSAGE, an AI-based thermal-imaging platform designed to prevent bed falls. When approached about PreSAGE’s implementation, Dr Tanthunawit suggested that the innovator could integrate more clinical parameters such as heart rate, body temperature and respiratory rate.  

“Being agile and adaptable enough to work with the provider could help startups address the core needs of healthcare professionals, and most importantly, show that they are willing to sit down and work through [issues] with the provider,” said Dr Tanthunawit. 

Beyond the usual suspects

Discerning the needs of the target audience is an essential first step to getting through that proverbial door. “Avoid the trap of an idealistic view,” advised Dr Heng, underscoring the importance of ground realities over theoretical constructs. 

Using patient data as a touchstone, he offered a practical insight, “Instead of solely relying on electronic medical records, consider the patient’s billing data—it’s a reliable reflection of the patient’s journey within the hospital.” This approach ensures startups don’t just focus on data, but truly engage with the provider’s vantage point, understanding their processes and behaviour. 

“By looking at things from the provider’s or operator’s perspective, startups can get cleaner data as well as grasp the patient’s trajectory with greater accuracy,” Dr Heng added. 

Yet, the journey from conceptualising innovations to their implementation isn’t linear and healthcare providers expect a tangible return on investment at every level. “There is often a chasm between what is expected and what you need to do to bring the innovation in,” Dr Heng said. 

For startups navigating this terrain, Dr Heng had another salient piece of advice, “They need to pitch to the right sponsor, the right person, and to understand their objectives and if they are strategic. For example, is there a focus on process efficiency or labour savings?” 

Echoing Dr Heng’s sentiments, Dr Tanthuwanit shed light on the complexities of the corporate hierarchy, as well as the importance for startups to understand their target audience. “The CEO is probably the worst person to pitch to as they’re so focused on the immediate issues—living month to month, quarterly to quarterly, AGM to AGM—concentrated on the business and its growth.” 

Related: Top tips for more effective and engaging science communication

Offering a fresh perspective, Dr Garg emphasized the potential value of clinician endorsements for startups, suggesting they often act as a critical seal of approval.

“One of the disconnects that I see all the time is that many innovations don’t have [the support] of clinicians,” she said. “[There are] many clinicians who are open to ideation and are keen to innovate, and they could play a pivotal role in bridging this gap [between startups and healthcare providers].”

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