The rise of medical entrepreneurs
How students are turning their ideas into innovative apps and products
Since 2015, about 100 junior doctors have joined NHS England and Health Education England’s clinical entrepreneur training programme, and many students and doctors in training around the UK are now turning creative ideas into innovative products, apps, and services to improve patient care and enhance learning.
“In the past, doctors had to make a choice about whether to carry on with medical training or leave medicine and become an entrepreneur full time, but now you can do both together,” says Shafi Ahmed, a colorectal surgeon and medical entrepreneur, based at Barts Health NHS Trust in London.
So what is driving this trend for medical entrepreneurs?
Medical students and junior doctors are often among the most enthusiastic adopters of digital technologies and other innovations being developed to improve healthcare.
Leeds University student James Gupta, who has co-produced a medical education app called Synap notes a “passion” for innovation among his generation of students, who have been brought up using mobile phones and tools like Google Maps or Uber.
However, he says that this experience doesn’t always tally up with the world of medicine. “As medical students, we’re digital natives and using mobile technology is second nature to us. But what we find is that medicine is often lagging a decade or so behind the technologies and tools we’re using away from the wards,” Gupta says.
Hussain Al-Jabir, who is taking a digital health module as part of his course at Barts and The London Medical School thinks “it’s not just that we’re younger and already experienced with tech, but we’re also earlier on in our training and haven’t become too set in our ways.”
Skills gained at medical school, such as critically appraising evidence, diagnosing problems, communicating effectively, and analysing and interpreting data, can be applied in the world of business and enterprise.
Ollie Jones, who started a business called The TeachMeSeries (http://teachmeseries.com/) at Leicester Medical School, says students and junior doctors are ideally placed to see which systems and practices need to be improved as they move around the NHS.
“I think that the problem solving and inquisitive part of the brain kick in, and we think: ‘What can we do to fix that?’” says Jones.
Gupta, who is poised to attract £1m (€1.17m; $1.24m) of private investment for his business, believes that many more students should utilise their ideas, skills, and instincts to develop an enterprise.
“You can’t really wait for someone to give you permission, you’ve just got to do it yourself and put the time into it,” he says.
Even so, there are significant challenges in turning the ideas and skills gained at medical school into practice as entrepreneurs, according to Abeyna Jones, co-founder of Medic Footprints, an organisation that highlights alternative career routes for doctors, including entrepreneurship.
“As doctors, we train in a very prescribed way. We’ve got a pre-determined path that dictates exactly what we do and when we do it. It’s very different from being an entrepreneur: there are no rules.”
Barts X Medicine
“The current environment for entrepreneurship in medicine is better than it has been for a long while,” says Ahmed. The NHS is increasingly recognising the need for enterprising innovators to create and develop the ideas, technologies, products, and services that may be vital to its future.
In January 2017, Ahmed launched Barts X Medicine, the UK’s first medtech programme for medical students at Barts and The London Medical School (box 1).
Box 1: Barts X Medicine by Laura Elliott, Student BMJ Clegg Scholar 2017
In January 2017, Shafi Ahmed launched Barts X Medicine, the UK’s first digital health programme for medical students at Barts and The London Medical School. A total of 120 third year medical students enrolled on the pilot four month module, which covers how the latest health technologies, including artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality, are being used in healthcare.
Participants work in groups, supported by mentors, experts, and successful entrepreneurs to develop and pitch ideas for innovations that have the potential to improve patient care and aid patient and student education.
On 24 March 2017, five teams of students were invited to present their ideas to a team of judges at the BMJ, with the winning team receiving a place on the BMJ mentorship programme, which involves technical, marketing, and commercial support for three months.
Winning team: OSCAR
The winning team from the BMJ judging day are Veda Kuvda, Hasaneen Fathy Al Janabi, and Abhrajit Giri, whose app, OSCAR, aims to revolutionise how students prepare for clinical placements.
Users of OSCAR will be able to take a photo of their own body parts using their smartphone and the app will superimpose further information (pathology, video, and audio clips) about diseases and presentations relevant to the specific area of anatomy.
The team hope to develop the app so that virtual reality headsets and haptic gloves can be used to mimic the sights, sounds, and feel of what students can expect to experience on the wards.
NHS clinical entrepreneur training programme
The NHS clinical entrepreneur training programme, co-designed by NHS England and Health Education England, offers opportunities for health professionals to develop their “entrepreneurial aspirations” during their clinical training.
Participants are able to take time out from their clinical work—three or six months, or a day or two a week—to pursue their enterprise.
They are provided with mentors and coaches, access to networking events, and advanced internships with global companies and business start ups, as well as advice on how to source funding.
The idea is to support and retain clinicians with entrepreneurial aspirations, so they can gain the skills and experience needed to deliver on the promise of digital health, genomics, data analytics, advanced technology, and social networks for the NHS.
Abeyna Jones, who is also working on the programme, believes “it is a good opportunity to be part of a network of doctors or clinicians interested in innovating within healthcare in various ways. Obviously, not everyone is going to succeed, but they are more likely to succeed as a group than as individuals.”
Participants include Harry Thirkettle, who has returned to the NHS as a part time emergency department registrar in Harlow, Essex, while continuing his entrepreneurial work. One of the projects he is pursuing is the development of an “integrated long term condition management system” for conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes, which can track patient data to improve the way that patients adhere to treatment, and which also allows remote access by specialists.
Box 2: Tips for taking an idea to market
Identify a solution to a specific problem
Many businesses fail because they are too ambitious, too general, or expand too quickly. The NHS, for example, has seen many failed attempts to develop an “ultimate information technology system” which could be deployed everywhere.
Increasingly, people are looking for smaller solutions that are designed to address a specific problem. Many successful and popular apps just focus on doing one thing well.
Make sure your idea is sustainable
Ahmed recommends getting feedback on your idea. “It [your idea] might already have been invented, be unviable, or be too expensive to produce. You need some advice from someone who’s been through it before, or who understands the subject area.”
Gupta advises trying to understand an idea in terms of a business model. “If your idea is going to be sustainable, it needs to be good for patients and doctors, and also sustainable in terms of generating revenue or saving costs for the NHS in a wider sense,” he says.
Build a team around you
Although some individuals with good ideas can get quite far on their own, there are benefits to having a co-founder and, eventually, a wider team with whom to share ideas, workload, and vision.
“Make sure you get a good team around you,” Gupta advises. Your colleagues may have different skills or detailed insight in specific areas, such as marketing, raising investment, branding, development, and human resources—and the time to devote to them.
“A large part of being a successful entrepreneur is your network,” says Abeyna Jones. “You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t have the right structure and support networks then that’s not going to mean anything.”
She also suggests “making sure you 100% believe in it, because [your idea] is not going to survive without you, especially in the early stages.”
Ahmed says that finding a mentor is key. “You can approach your university to find out who might be willing to support you, or who knows a bit about the subject area. Have a chat with them and take it forward if appropriate,” he says.
Box 3: Resources for getting started: support and funding
- Doctorpreneurs (www.doctorpreneurs.com/): This is a non-profit organisation that describes itself as “the global community for doctors, medical students, and individuals interested in healthcare innovation and entrepreneurship.”
- NHS regional innovation hubs (http://knowledge.nic.nhs.uk/orgDetails.aspx?orgId=4): These seven hubs, based in England, offer support for developing an idea, finding mentors, and securing funding for NHS staff.
- NHS Hack Days (http://nhshackday.com/): These events aim to bring people from different disciplines into the same room to focus on particular tasks or projects related to improving healthcare. Participants may, for example, include software developers, designers, clinicians, and patients. NHS Hack Days are run over three or four weekends a year and are open to anyone with an interest in healthcare technology.
- NHS Innovation Accelerators (www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/innovation/nia/): These are programmes designed to help innovators progress from business ideas to the development stage, and can offer funding (bursaries up to £30 000), mentoring, contacts, and office space to help get ideas off the ground. NHS Innovation Accelerators support innovations that benefit patients and can help to get them adopted more quickly and systematically throughout the NHS.
Box 4: Innovation case study: OSLR
OSLR (named after William Osler, one of the pioneers of modern medical education) is an app that helps you find teaching opportunities in your local hospital based on your smartphone’s location settings. Tom Simpson (TS), medical director, and Adam Pennycuick (AP), chief executive officer of OSLR, talked to Matthew Billingsley, editor of Student BMJ, about the process of building the app and their plans for the future.
What is OSLR?
TS: OSLR is a free app that helps medical students and junior doctors find teaching opportunities in their local hospital. Doctors can post a message advertising a teaching session that they are going to host—with the topic, time, and location—and students can sign up to it using their smartphone. Teachers and students can also log their teaching session and collect feedback on the app.
How did you take OSLR from idea to reality?
TS: Two years ago I saw a gap in the market when I had a few hours to spare to give some teaching, but I couldn’t find any students to teach—even though I knew there would be students in the hospital who would value some instruction. I had no tech skills, but managed to get some money from my parents to turn the initial concept into an app. However, the finished product was not quite what I wanted.
I knew Adam through projects we’d worked on together, and I remembered that he had a background in software development and had built something similar to OSLR as a website. Adam provided the missing link between the technical and medical side, and we now have two non-medics (a chief design officer and chief project officer) to assist with the development.
AP: We all work for free and in our spare time. It has taken a lot of hours, but it’s been a lot of fun—a slightly obsessive hobby.
How much did it cost to build the current version of the app?
TS: Initially, I spent about £10 000 on the first version of the app before Adam joined the project. For the past two years, Adam has been building the app for free, and we’ve probably only spent about £2000 for server access and other running costs. We’ve had financial support and other types of non-financial support from a number of different institutions, including Health Education England, King’s College London, and Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.
What has the uptake been like since you launched?
AP: We’ve managed to sign up over 400 students from King’s College London Medical School through presentations and e-mail campaigns. Our marketing has been largely through word of mouth and by setting up stalls in the doctors’ induction hall at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Tom has been to a lot of teaching sessions to inform students and to tell them to sign up. This app relies on a network, so it is important to drive up usage for it to succeed. For students, there is an obvious need for the app; however, we need to do more to encourage doctors to use the app to organise and log their teaching.
How would you like to develop OSLR in the future?
AP: We would like to add resources that support the teaching sessions advertised on the app, so that students can consolidate what they’ve learnt. The networking side of the app will remain free, but our vision involves adding learning resources as part of a paid-for premium subscription package.
What advice would you give to medical students developing their own app?
TS: Expect to fail at least once. Before I met Adam, I couldn’t envisage how I could develop an app, manage a business, and build up a list of contacts to help get the idea off the ground. However, I realised that I didn’t have to do everything myself—lots of support is available.
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
- England NHS. Clinical Entrepreneur Programme. 2017. www.innovation.england.nhs.uk/en/clinical-entrepreneur.
- Innovatemedtec. Barts X Medicine: faculty and course overview. 2017. https://innovatemedtec.com/barts-x-medicine/faculty-course.