Healthcare Momentum: Our Shared Responsibility

Girl with a medical cap, mask, stethoscope and injection (CTK Photo/Vojtech Vlk)
Girl with a medical cap, mask, stethoscope and injection (CTK Photo/Vojtech Vlk)

My company recently opened our service to Portland doctors, and it was truly gratifying to see that our business is no longer treated as outlandish. People are talking about online scheduling as a no-brainer, and not just in tech savvy parts of the country. But we didn't always fare so well in the news media -- or, for that matter, among investors, friends, and family.

Back in 2007, when my cofounders and I started ZocDoc, the business landscape was completely different. Very few startups were attempting to disrupt healthcare, and very few venture capitalists were willing to fund them. When we'd pitch our product, the reaction my partners and I received was less, "Good idea," and more, "Good god, you're crazy." ("Get out of my office" wasn't unpopular among doctors we approached, either.)

This response wasn't what we wanted to hear, but it wasn't entirely unjustified. Traditionally, the healthcare space is a bloodbath. A lot of smart, hard-working people had failed while trying to change it. Powerful new technologies had fallen by the wayside, never to be adopted. Investors were generally wary, having been burned before.

That was five years ago, and I'm happy to say that the tides seem to be turning! Consumer adoption of new technologies is also on the rise, and growing. More people than ever before are searching for health information online, downloading wellness apps, tracking and socially sharing health data, and so on. And healthcare providers are increasingly ready and willing to adopt as well. Additionally, a lot of fresh young faces are cropping up in the healthcare IT scene, and venture capitalists are betting on their success.

In other words, I think it's safe to say that healthcare IT is really coming into its own.

So how should we interpret the new energy, money, and human resources flowing into this space? Is it just another financial trend? It wasn't long ago that startups focusing on clean technology rose to major prominence, attracting a huge volume of investor dollars. Social media followed soon after. Opinions differ on how successful these industries have been, but the fact remains that venture capital tends to move in waves.

When it comes to healthcare, however, we should all hope that the new investments are more than a trend. Our infrastructure is under critical strain; there is a nationwide doctor shortage, and an equally ominous doctor distribution problem. The population is aging, and retiring baby boomers will need ever-greater care. Waste, inefficiency, and spiraling costs are completely out of control.

Our country's healthcare system needs total transformation. We cannot afford to do less, or to let this be another trend. Fortunately, though the problem is enormous and multifaceted, there are just as many ways for us to build a better system.

Entrepreneurs should think about how to disrupt healthcare -- and then think about it some more. The startup world is full of thoughtful, brilliant people who will are well positioned to be successful in anything they apply themselves to. So let's not be content with simply building ephemeral things that are solely fun and profitable. Let's work to solve the deep, complex problems that will affect everyone for decades to come.

Healthcare providers can contribute, too. Increasingly, physicians are feeling the financial burdens of malpractice costs, high overhead, and low reimbursements. Small practices especially are feeling the strain, which is why one in four have recently shuttered or are considering closing their practices. Fortunately, tech innovation also represents new economic opportunities for physicians. They should stay committed to exploring new technologies that can increase their efficiency and reach.

Even patients, for their part, have a role to play as active, discriminating healthcare consumers. That's one reasons I've found the Quantified Self movement so inspiring. It's about taking charge of your health through technology -- and it's being driven by patients, who are showing industry leaders exactly what they want. This is the sort of change we should all stay excited about. Let's demonstrate that there is a significant, growing consumer appetite for a paradigm shift.

Of course, no one wants to waste his or her time and energy on a new healthcare app that fizzles out. But healthcare is not going away, and it's not going to fix itself. It's time for all of us -- entrepreneurs, doctors, and patients alike -- to take smart risks.