The Power of Youth: Using the Tech Startup Mentality to Solve Healthcare Challenges
Addressing delegates at the International Youth Day conference in August 2001, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proclaimed, “Young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation.” In the decade since then, a proliferation of tech startups has transformed the way we live, affirming the creative potential of young people.
But in the field of US healthcare, the exuberance of youth remains largely untested, inhibited by institutional constraints. “When you get into the medical training track, it’s a bit of a conveyor belt,” says Kapil Parakh, cardiologist at Johns Hopkins. Straight out of medical school, young people can get “tunnel-vision”—they consider practicing medicine within the health system as their only career option. With few MDs focused on finding lasting solutions and preventative measures for persistent health problems, there is less innovation happening than can be found in other sectors.
Parakh says there is an obvious need to give young people experience in the health field. That’s half the reason he co-founded Health for America, a fellowship program to harness the “fresh approach” of recent graduates and reinvigorate healthcare in the United States. But more than that, he felt that young people had a lot to contribute to innovation in the healthcare sector, too, since this age group had made a huge impact in other parts of the tech industry. “They had a lot of creative energy they could bring to health,” he says. Parakh and co-founder Madhura Bhat were inspired by concepts from the start-up community, such as Lean Startup and design thinking.
Health for America has three clearly defined goals: to provide young people with training and practical experience—a “long-term investment”; to build institutional capacity for innovation by integrating technology into healthcare; and, in the process, to create sustainable solutions that impact patient outcomes. The founders tested their concept with an eight-week program in the summer of 2013, in which three graduate students—Abena Dakwahene, Glenn L. Means III, and Miki Lendenmann—were selected to tackle the problem of childhood asthma.
Despite demonstrable interest in global and public health, the cohort of three had little experience with healthcare on the ground. But the program offered the chance to be “part of a change” in the US healthcare delivery system. “This opportunity was so exciting because it was so unique,” remarked Abena. “Health IT is booming in the United States right now.”
Over the course of eight weeks, the three fellows travelled the country, consulting healthcare professionals, insurance providers, policymakers, and entrepreneurs. According to Dakwahene, this holistic approach illuminated how comprehensive healthcare is: “It’s so dense; you really need to get the perspectives of everyone to create something that will benefit everyone.” Yet at the same time, Lendenman noted, talking face to face with patients—something that even experienced entrepreneurs and healthcare professionals sometimes overlook—was the most influential aspect of the program, enabling the fellows to hone in on the needs of the patient and develop solutions centered around the end-user.
The fellows’ enthusiasm—their “contagious energy” that created a “perpetual cycle of awesomeness”—is palpable. “We just really wanted to make a change in asthma healthcare,” said Means. “And I think we really did; even though it was such a short time period, we made such a great impact.” The program’s outputs included a white paper outlining potential solutions, a device to improve the delivery of asthma medicines, and a hackathon-style challenge to design a game that could improve children’s ability to manage their condition.
Parakh informs me that Health for America is already working with its partners to fully develop and commercialize one of the prototypes created by the fellows, and that their white paper has been accepted for presentation at the International Conference on Health, Wellness and Society in Vancouver in March 2014. Parakh explained that the pilot was successful but that “you really need the full year-long program to do these things.” In a couple of months you can create a company in an accelerator; but in healthcare, with a myriad of regulatory and privacy concerns, it’s not possible to fully develop and iterate solutions in such a short timeframe. Parakh hopes to launch Health for America’s first 12-month fellowship in mid-2014.
But as the fellows outline their future goals, it appears that Health for America’s “long-term investment” in human capital will prove to be a prudent one. The eight-week immersion not only equipped the fellows with a nuanced understanding of the different components of health and health innovation, but opportunities to interact with inspirational entrepreneurs, such as at the IDEO workshop and the Southland Conference and Lean Startup Machine workshop, also left the group “really engaged” with the prospect of using startup methodologies to impact health problems.
As far as the third goal—to spread this methodology around and build institutional capacity for innovation in health—we’ll have to wait and see. The process has already begun to take shape with an online community for health innovation in partnership, led by Harvard-based initiative GHDonline. But whether the fellowship succeeds in its attempt to channel “America’s greatest strength” (entrepreneurship) to address its “greatest challenge” (health) will become clear as the program grows into the future. By harnessing the creative energy of young people and positioning them at the forefront of change, Health for America has given itself the best possible chance to succeed.
This post originally appeared on our partner site, Forbes.com.
Photo, Health for America fellows at IDEO workshop, courtesy of Health for America. From left to right: Miki Lendenmann, Stacey Chang (Director of Health and Wellness, IDEO), Abena Dakwahene, Glenn Means III.