The Start of a Change: Health for America seeks to transform health innovation
In mid-2012, cardiologist Kapil Parakh and management and health professional Madhura Bhat pooled their experience of US healthcare to set up an innovative fellowship program. Inspired by Lean Startup methodology, Health for America (@health4america) mobilizes youth to create innovative technology solutions that improve health outcomes.
Ben Thurman caught up with co-founder, Kapil Parakh, and Health for America’s first three fellows – Glenn L. Means III, Abena Dakwahene and Miki Lendenmann – to find out what they achieved in the pilot Summer Program.
Ben Thurman: What motivated you to set up Health for America?
Kapil Parakh: We were looking for a triple impact. One: that the fellows would learn a lot and it would help them in their future careers – a long-term investment. Two: that the institutions and providers the fellows worked with would see the impact of what they were doing and learn from it, and so you would build institutional capacity. And three: that the process itself would build solutions that have an impact on patient outcomes.
Thurman: You’re investing particularly in young people: do they offer something different in health innovation?
Parakh: Absolutely. We thought they definitely would bring a fresh approach, as they wouldn’t be as tunnel-visioned into the health system already. The age group was also important because these are the folks who in other parts of tech are inventing Facebook and Twitter – they have a lot of creative energy they could bring to health.
Thurman: Why did you choose to focus on childhood asthma in this first fellowship?
Parakh: We chose childhood asthma as a disease that was very prevalent, but not very high on the agenda of many folks in the health field. It was one of those things that could have a lot of impact.
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Thurman: Health for America designed a really diverse program: what was it that attracted you to the fellowship?
Glenn L. Means III: It was very unique and we were going to be the first class – the start of a change. What really attracted me to the program, though, was all the different things that we would be learning about and ultimately how we could implement technology into the changes our healthcare delivery system is going through.
Thurman: Had you come across other opportunities that incorporated the technology/startup aspect into healthcare?
Abena Dakwahene: When I was looking for jobs after college it was really overwhelming. There’s Teach for America, Global Corps, Peace Corps – positions where you can go into the field and teach or do international development – but there was nothing that combined health and technology. So that was really attractive because health IT is something that’s booming in the United States right now.
Thurman: You were only together eight weeks. How did you manage to bond as a team in such a short time?
Means: We bonded very quickly. I’ve been in a lot of team environments, but this one was so refreshing – as soon as we got together we connected. Everybody’s energy was so contagious: when you leave work after a 12-hour day still talking about what happened at the beginning of the day, that’s when you know you’re accomplishing something great.
Dakwahene: Definitely, we worked so well together and really balanced each other. All of us took on different roles, and it was amazing how well we worked in this group environment.
Thurman: Do you think this connection was serendipitous, or partly a product of the fellowship’s innovative framework?
Miki Lendenmann: I’ve never been in a team environment where we clicked right off the bat. We’d get excited about a certain innovation or idea, and we just fed off each other’s energy and positivity. But I also think that when Kapil and Madhura selected the fellows they were looking for people with different backgrounds, so I think it’s definitely both.
Thurman: In eight weeks you visited several cities; met healthcare professionals, providers and patients, and attended conferences and startup workshops. Which aspects of the program did you find most useful?
Lendenmann: I really enjoyed hearing the challenges and different perspectives, especially from the patients. It matters what others think, but it’s the patient living with this disease and it’s the patient who has to control and manage it – it’s really important to hear everything from their perspective.
Means: Yeah, travelling from DC to Louisville to Nashville to San Francisco and Oakland, seeing all the different perspectives, we realized there are different audiences and you have to target those audiences in a unique way. There’s a lot of environmental and social factors that impact the solution: you can’t assume that the same solution is going to be the best solution for everyone. It all goes back to finding a patient-driven solution.
Thurman: Was it the need to understand patient perspectives that inspired you to organize #GamifyAsthma (a hackathon-style design challenge to create a product for childhood asthma)?
Dakwahene: Yeah, I think all the participants that created a prototype had asthma in their background, so it was great that everyone had that perspective because they were doing everything first-hand and realizing their personal struggles. And for the judging, we invited some kids to the competition and we made them a part of the judging, because ultimately they’ll be the ones using this prototype. Having them there to see what would work for them and what wouldn’t, I feel that really gave us the best results.
Thurman: As well as the hackathon, you produced a white paper, created an online community on health innovation and designed a device to improve medication delivery. Were there any limitations to your outputs or things you would have done differently?
Lendenmann: I really wish we could have gone into the field and tested the products. If we had tested the prototype and made it really centered round what the target customer wanted, I think it would make the white paper stronger. Future fellowships will be year-long, so they’ll have that opportunity, but I would have loved to have done that.
Parakh: This is the fundamental difference between the ‘usual’ startup and the health startup: in eight weeks you can create a company in an accelerator; but it’s very hard to do that in health, given the regulatory, privacy and other concerns. That’s why you need a year to iterate and develop solutions that are meaningful and impactful.
Thurman: Are there any plans to take forward the prototypes from this summer program?
Parakh: We’re actually working right now with our partners to make the prototypes they developed fully functional.
Thurman: What have you learnt over the fellowship and what advice would you give to others?
Dakwahene: Number one: don’t reinvent the wheel. There are so many applications out there that are all so similar; if you could get all of those minds together it would be so much better. So before you start, see if there’s something already out there – if there is, contact these people and see how you can strengthen it, rather than recreate it.
And you have to talk to a lot of people. Healthcare is so comprehensive: it’s not just your doctor, it’s education, the environment, insurance companies, entrepreneurs, community members. You need to get the perspective of everybody to create something that will really benefit everyone.
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Thurman: Finally, what have the fellows taught you, the founders, about Health for America’s potential?
Parakh: We kind of knew this was an idea that could lead to great things; but even in our wildest imagination we didn’t think it would be this successful. Seeing this impact from an eight-week program is very rewarding.
Going forward, there’s lots of little things: logistics in setting up meetings, which things to do first. For that, we really value the relationship we all have: we can call these guys at any point and they’ve already expressed an interest in helping shape next year’s fellowship. Returning to the user-centered theme, we want the fellows to have the best possible experience – what better than to ask the fellows who’ve gone through it already to help shape next year’s class as well?
Thurman: And by involving the fellows closely next year, do you hope to create a network of innovators in healthcare?
Parakh: That’s the goal, absolutely.
Means: It’s a network we built that we want to maintain and instill in future classes. It’s something really special that will help the program and continue its growth in the future.
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.