You're a smart practitioner of aesthetic medicine, up to date on the latest technologies. In fact, you walk around laden with a supercomputer, video camera, note pad, homing device, calculator, day planner, dictation transcriptionist, medical journal library, photography system, map and credit card processor (among other things), miraculously combined into a device that fits in your shirt pocket.
In our increasingly connected and mobile world, each of us is looking for ways to maximize our efficiency, improve our practice's reputation and financial health, and optimize the wellbeing of ourselves, our families and our patients. We are accustomed to practicing precision medicine in the aesthetic space—crafting bespoke solutions to distinct problems based on setting requirements, leveling expectations and delivering technical expertise. Not unusually, plastic surgeons, dermatologists and other aesthetic physicians have light-bulb moments where we believe there is an unmet need—a pain point—for our colleagues or patients, which could be fulfilled with a properly designed application or software tool. In the last several years, physician entrepreneurs have introduced innovative EMR products, practice management platforms, marketing engines, consumer applications, consultative tools, and other interesting software-driven solutions for these pain points.
Having participated in developing such software applications, I offer these 11 smart steps to aspiring doctor developers:
1. Do your research early.
Identify whether the solution you seek to construct already exists, and if so, why have you not heard of it? Is it, perhaps, that there is a limited willingness on the part of the market to pay for or adopt such a product or service? Do a serious competitive analysis. Don't just focus on the addressable market opportunity size.
2. Clearly articulate the core mission of the application.
What problem exactly are you trying to solve? Are you sure this is a problem for your expected customers or are you just speculating? Focus group research, attendance at digital health conferences, participation in LinkedIn and other networks for entrepreneurs may help answer this before you invest substantial money into development.
3. Get your user stories straight.
This exercise helps you think through how the user navigates through the tool, what the look and feel needs to be, and what is critical versus extraneous to the platform.
Products for consumers, as well as for physicians, need to be clean, stylish, simple to use and easily navigable. Going into the native environment of your users—the places and contexts in which they would be expected to access your application—is critical. Consider yourself an anthropologist studying a local culture in its native environment. This is critical to understanding the application workflow. If this is in a physician's office, figure out who among the staff would typically use the tool and why and how they would do so.
4. Learn about application development methodologies.
Many of these were derived from lean process methods applied to manufacturing (think Toyota assembly lines), and require a good understanding of your resources (time, money, human capital) and how and when you can best deploy them to create lasting value. You can learn more about these processes by searching for literature on Agile development, Scrum and other ways software development teams work. This includes tools to help you prioritize which features are critical (part of your “minimally viable product” or MVP) and which are nice to have but not required for launch. Learning about these methodologies can also help you in your clinical practice, as they also include ways to measure the “velocity” of your delivery of work product and to identify where your capacity to produce is being overused or underused.
5. Think about whether you want to develop this in house or use external software development firms.
Many of these companies can be engaged on contracts and employ off- or near-shore developers who can produce high quality applications at lower cost than recruiting, hiring and employing developers directly. A good starting place for soliciting contractors is upwork.com, where you can create project specifications and identify what kind of people and work you need to complete the application. Typically, this will include user experience/user interface architects (who create mockups of the interactive navigation and tell developers what functions need to be accomplished) and software engineers. It may also include business analysts who help you identify the business goals for the users that you are trying to empower so you can prioritize features in your development roadmap.
6. Identify whether this is going to be a native app (Something a user has to download to be installed on a mobile device) or a web service that can be accessed in browsers (on mobile or desktop devices).
While the user stories may be similar, the form factor and environments for using different devices and types of products may change the way you think about design.
7. Learn the ins and outs of HIPPA compliance.
If your application will include any protected health information (PHI), make sure you do your homework on how to create HIPAA-compliant applications. Ask your potential teams if they have experience in this area. There are platforms out there like aptible.com and medable.com which can take some of the heavy lifting of compliance out for your developers.
8. Test your early prototypes.
See what works and what doesn't with representative customers, either through a beta license or even for compensation. This is among the best ways to assess whether the market will find value in your product. These early users can become your greatest marketing champions and also participate in your quality assurance process to debug and perfect your app. Always subject these prospective users to non-disclosure agreements in your early development phase. Don't let someone else execute on your brilliant idea (of course you are free to tell me about them if you like…)!
9. Set a realistic budget.
Software development takes time and costs money. I've seen apps cost anywhere from $10K to millions of dollars to develop and launch, depending on infrastructure, feature complexity, marketing budget, security concerns, and other factors.
10. Don't quit your day job…yet.
You need your active practice to lend credibility to the value of your application, to say nothing of needing the cash flow generated by practice to keep you solvent and your family from panicking while you plunge into your product development. Also, lots of apps fail. It's a fact. Doctors are not the easiest customers to convince, nor keep, and consumers have a limited willingness to pay for healthcare-related software tools. Don't put all your eggs into this basket.
11. Have fun!
Seeing your product in the hands of your colleagues or patients is very rewarding. In fact, I have used or currently use products developed by myself but also by colleagues, and exploring ways to enhance the experience of physicians and patients using technology is highly contagious. The tools are literally in the palm of your hand.
Tim A. Sayed, MD, MBA, FACS has more than a decade of experience practicing plastic and reconstructive surgery in South Florida. He is double board-certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and the American Board of Surgery. Dr. Sayed has been named one of America's Top Plastic Surgeons and is an active member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. He received his medical schooling and training at Massachusetts General Hospital (Harvard Medical School) in Boston and the University of California at San Francisco. Dr. Sayed has a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California at Berkeley and completed the Executive MBA Program at The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago. An expert on the interface of healthcare and technology, he serves as an advisor and investor in numerous digital health and medical device companies and has developed software products for plastic surgery and other medical specialties.