Operate with integrity, humanity: How health-tech startups can avoid scandal

Many healthcare-technology startups are following Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley's pressure to move fast. However, as many have also seen, these tech companies have found themselves in scandal.

Start-ups don't have to follow Mr. Zuckerberg's "move fast and break things" approach. Instead, Omada Health and other companies are moving slowly when it comes to going public.

Sean Duffy is the CEO and co-founder of Omada Health, a digital health company focused on finding solutions for patients with obesity-related chronic conditions. On May 29, he welcomed Wei-Li Shao to the company as its Chief Commercial Officer.

Below, Mr. Duffy explains the importance of data sharing and gives advice for other start-ups entering the healthcare space.

Editor's note: Responses are lightly editor for clarity and length.

Question: Why don't more digital health and therapeutics companies share information? Will there come a time when data sharing is more common?

Sean Duffy: It’s hard to speak to other digital health and therapeutic companies, but what I can say is that Omada’s approach is to share information wherever possible. For participants, our position is that they own their data; we enable them to access their personal health information easily and readily, and in as automated a manner as possible. We report our clinical outcomes to payers as allowed under HIPAA, in order to facilitate care coordination, as well as our billing model — when you bill based on outcomes, you need to be able to demonstrate the outcomes.

We’ve invested heavily to understand how we can operate as a HIPAA-covered entity while staying within the rules, and I can’t speak to how other companies have approached this fundamental responsibility. I will say, connecting with traditional healthcare and EHRs at a reasonable cost has been a hurdle, as we know it has been for others. We also know this is something the federal government is looking closely at, and we’re excited to see how the new rule against information blocking plays out, and we’re optimistic it will be good for innovation.

Q: What is your No. 1 rule to avoid scandal?

SD: Follow the rules and operate with integrity and humility. Healthcare involves the most sensitive information and decisions of people’s lives, and while there are many rules, they’re there for good reason. It’s important to keep people safe, or, in the case of financial claims made to government programs, it’s important to ensure that taxpayer funds are disbursed carefully. Omada is committed to evolving healthcare — and we’ve been honored to be part of leading that evolution. But evolution doesn’t have to equal disruption, and in healthcare, it shouldn’t. When it comes to privacy, safety or reimbursement, “move fast and break things” couldn’t be farther from the proper strategy.

It’s also important to do the right thing by our participants. When it comes to personal health information, protecting the privacy and security of users is an existential business imperative. HIPAA sets the baseline for patient data protection. For companies operating under HIPAA responsibilities, obligations, and opportunities become entirely clear, and adherence to these builds and reinforces trust. 

Q: Startups in healthcare continue to pop up left and right. What is one piece of advice you would give them?

SD: My No. 1 piece of advice would be to avoid the term ‘startup.’ Potential customers — especially enterprise, health plan, and health system customers — are looking for evidence of maturity. We’ve always referred to Omada as a “digital healthcare company”. While “disruptive digital health startup” is a phrase that might gain the attention of short-term headlines, the head of benefits or a health plan medical director will feel otherwise.

I’d also encourage digital health companies to learn to respect the existing infrastructure of the healthcare system, even if its design doesn’t align with how you would do it if building a system from scratch. Often, startups tend to make brash moves, ignoring established procedures and local regulations. Healthcare doesn’t work this way. While speed may get you first to market, remaining intentional about your design and approach will drive lasting power. Rather than demanding the most disruptive solution, respect incremental improvements.

More articles about health IT:
The components of an elite health IT team from UC Health CIO Tom Andriola
Pew to ONC: New EHR criteria should focus on pediatric patients' safety
Cerner kicks off app challenge for enhanced consumer EHR access

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