Innovating health care from the inside out

After 25 years of performing ear-nose-throat and facial plastic surgeries, Jeff Hausfeld, MD, put down the scalpel and went back to school — business school.

Like many doctors who practice for some time, Hausfeld found himself wondering how to “leave a larger footprint” with his career. “How do you affect more people with the time that you have?” For him, the answer was entrepreneurship.

Doctor-entrepreneurs have come up with ideas for things like medical apps, surgical devices, and healthcare delivery platforms. They’ve developed new drugs and vaccines, and performed clinical trials. Others might work with policy, finance, or process innovation. The possibilities for innovation in the ever-changing world of healthcare are endless.

Younger MDs with MBAs often come from a different path than Hausfeld’s. With more and more schools offering combined MD/MBA programs, a growing number of young medical students are setting out from the get-go to become the future problem solvers of healthcare.

As a practicing physician, Hausfeld already became interested in commercializing products and services. He wrote a book titled “Don’t Snore Anymore,” and pioneered some innovative laser surgery techniques for sleep apnea and facial plastic surgery. When his son, Joshua, chose to enroll in Johns Hopkins University’s Business of Health Care MBA program, the older Hausfeld liked the idea and opted to do the same. In 2005, the two became the first father-son duo to graduate the program.

After graduation, Hausfeld spent 6 months traveling around the country as a pharmaceutical spokesperson, lecturing to other doctors about sinus disease. One of his first entrepreneurial endeavors was a real estate firm developing assisted living facilities specially designed for patients with Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related memory problems. Hausfeld recalled thinking, “This beats looking up noses!”

Although Hausfeld stopped seeing patients to focus on the business side of his career, most physicians don’t need to quit their practice to be entrepreneurs, nor do they need an MBA to be successful. All you need is an innovative idea that is “better, faster, cheaper and safer,” said Hausfeld, who co-founded the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs (SoPE) in 2011.

“Almost every technologist and doctor has a good idea but they don’t know what to do with it,” said Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA, president and CEO of SoPE, “so we created an organization to help them do something with it.”

Hausfeld, Meyers, and Steven Levine, MD, all three otolaryngologists with innovative ideas, created SoPE when they realized how many physicians wanted guidance in entrepreneurship. It started with an early morning lecture at a meeting of the American Academy of Otolaryngology. When more than 150 people showed up at the crack of dawn to learn about entrepreneurship, they decided to form an organization to help more doctors become entrepreneurs.

The society helps health innovators bring their ideas to life by providing “education, resources, networks, members, experiential learning, and access to people with money to help them get their idea to a patient,” said Meyers.

Despite the title, SoPE is not just for physicians. Many members are nurses, dentists, podiatrists, pharmacists, regulators, attorneys, investors, medical students, MBA students, engineering students, and more. “It’s a very eclectic group,” said Hausfeld.

While just about anyone can become a health entrepreneur, people working directly with patients have a major advantage. “Whether it’s in the service industry, whether it’s a device or a health IT application, a biotech company or pharmaceutical, we know what’s in our tool kits and what we’d like to have in those tool kits,” said Hausfeld. “And that information is invaluable for any innovation.”

Hilario Castillo, RN, said that nurses are always talking about ways that devices could be better, safer, or more efficient. “I’m always trying to find better ways to do things,” he said. As an emergency room technician, that thinking led him to come up with an idea for a better, safer, and more time-efficient multi-needle syringe.

Castillo said that people working in healthcare are “the most credible to execute a life-changing technology because, we’re the ones at the bedside using these technologies, and one could argue that we have the best capability to know what it is that we need to make our jobs easier or enhance the patient experience.”

One doctor-led startup that seeks to enhance both the patient and the physician experience is a telemedicine platform called SkyMD. Led by dermatologist Debra Price, MD, and her sonEric Price, MBA, SkyMD aims to make treatment more efficient for dermatologists and their patients by offering online appointments, prescriptions, and payments. Unlike other telemedicine services, SkyMD keeps patients connected with their own doctors to keep care consistent and maintain a level of trust between patients and providers.

Price, who still practices dermatology in addition to her new business endeavor, said that “when you connect with your patients, you have a tremendous opportunity to impact the quality of their health … we need to leverage technology to improve the quality of care and efficiency of care, but we can not compromise quality.” Maintaining her practice helps her keep in touch with the patient care aspect of her job, and she leaves the business management responsibilities to her team of professionals.

Levine, the only one of SoPE’s three co-founders who still runs a private practice, said private practice is a great first step to learning about how to run a business and become an entrepreneur. Levine spends only 20% of his time on medicine and 80% of his time on the business of delivering that medicine, he said.

Robert Spitz, MD, medical director for Coastal Connecticut Research and a member of SoPE, manages to juggle his private gynecology practice, clinical trials, and commercializing his patented new device for female stress urinary incontinence all with no formal business education or training. He said that entrepreneurship to him is “one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

“Once you have a good idea from a clinical point of view, there’s an awful lot of other stuff that has to be executed to make that a reality, and most of the things that have to be done are things that your typical docs don’t have any experience in,” Spitz said. “So the biggest challenge was finding the expertise that I didn’t have and doing it on a shoestring budget.”

Though building a team may have been a challenge, Spitz is just one of many examples of physicians who become successful entrepreneurs without in MBA or other formal business training.

David Katz, MD, MPH, also fared well as a physician entrepreneur without knowing much about business. “When I started out in medicine, I was just thinking about patient care,” he said. “This isn’t really about wanting to be an entrepreneur” to generate revenue. Rather, “it’s an opportunity to take my life’s work and actually see it do some good in the real world,” Katz added.

Katz’s entrepreneurial work spans from nutritional guidance systems to new devices inspired by catheters that can dislodge objects from inside kids’ ears and noses. His advice for physicians who have their own ideas: “If an opportunity comes along to be entrepreneurial, jump at it!”

With healthcare constantly evolving and new technologies emerging, right now is “a very exciting time to be involved with entrepreneurship in healthcare,” said Hausfeld.