• Jamie Read

Diagnosing HealthTech's Image Problem

A new study suggests that HealthTech startups are failing to publish high-quality, peer-reviewed studies to back up their businesses. Like Theranos, who notoriously kept its research behind closed doors, this highlights a troubling theme in the global HealthTech industry, where technology-driven companies look to disrupt legacy health systems. The only problem is that in this industry, people's lives are at stake.

HealthTech Healthcare Technology branding and marketing
The HealthTech industry is having a moment but where old meets new, there are right and wrong approaches to building brands, especially when lives are on the line.

New technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), big data, blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) present a fundamental shift in how diseases are diagnosed, drugs are discovered and healthcare is delivered. The industry is growing exponentially, with the global value of the digital health market set to reach $233 billion by 2020 and HealthTech investments increasingly being made by non-traditional healthcare companies, like Alphabet, Apple and Alibaba

But it's not just major tech players that are innovating in the health space. Young, scrappy startups built on the latest technologies and cutting edge medical science are exciting investors around the world. However, they often fail (as Theranos did) when it comes to the reality that the system is full of regulations and processes designed to protect the patient. On the other hand, medical experts with a deep understanding of the industry's workings are applying their knowledge to create companies that help fill gaps in the system. They have credibility and clout but often take a conservative approach to marketing, which lacks excitement and results in slower momentum and smaller valuations.

“The expectation on healthcare is so high because the stakes are so high. It's your health, your family's health, your life...With technology, you have updates and fixes. We don't get that opportunity in healthcare.  You'd better get it right the first time.” - Beth Thompson-Webb, Global Customer Experience Leader, GE Healthcare

With so much hype, medical jargon, disruptive technology, growing pools of investors and anxious patients, we thought we would share five communications and brand-building tips to help HealthTech companies stand out, build credibility and navigate the the global regulatory landscape.

1. Transparency and Trust

Trust is the most important asset for healthcare companies looking to innovate the system. With issues like data and privacy, outcomes based reimbursement and legacy systems, there are any number of challenges facing companies in the space. While it is understandable why companies wish to keep IP and strategies close to their chest, the industry is ultimately designed to keep people healthy. So like snake oil salesmen with magic elixirs, companies must come to terms with the fact that one day, they will need to share their data and be open to scrutiny from peers. This is the way the industry keeps itself honest and ensures patients aren't put at risk.

Transparency builds trust. So while it might make sense to keep your technology under the radar in early growth stages, once you begin to scale, be prepared to publish your great results in peer-reviewed journals and leverage that science to build a credible story. Invite stakeholders and your customers to participate and share data. This is how healthcare has worked in the 21st century and it is what is expected if you want to leverage existing health services and experts to refer and promote your products.

2. Respect the System

Disruption doesn't always mean overhauling the system, but can include optimizing and complementing the system as well. However, the industry is heavily regulated, rooted in hierarchical structures, fragmented to varying degrees in different markets and burdened by legacy systems, which makes it exceptionally difficult to disrupt. Furthermore, HealthTech instantiates itself uniquely in different countries and markets, each of which faces its own particular set of healthcare challenges.

The first step is to gain an empathetic understanding of the problem you want to solve. This should include conversations with the experts that already work to overcome those problems. Talk to doctors, patients, nurses, hospital administrators, anyone and everyone within the system you are trying to disrupt. That's because they are also likely to be your biggest detractors, given that you want to uproot the way that they've historically done things.

3. Design Thinking

Healthcare is complex. Yes it could be simpler, but even in its simplest form, it's tricky when everyone experiences health differently. Because of this complexity, healthcare has historically been dictated by gatekeepers (think doctors, hospitals, insurers). But thanks to Dr. Google, we have easier access to information and more options for personalizing our healthcare experiences. But let's face it, we still don't care to understand the inner workings of a hospital or how electronic medical records are kept safe. We want to get healthy and get back to life.

In order to build trust in your solution, you need to be very clear about the problems you are solving and communicate them openly. Design Thinking is a methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems and it is especially important for HealthTech companies in defining the problem and then educating stakeholders about why your solution is needed. By respecting the system and applying design thinking, you can define your solution and position it as a win-win for the system and ultimately for your patients.

4. Be Bold... but Not Too Bold

There are fundamentally two kinds of HealthTech companies. The first are rooted in novel technologies and pay homage to a Silicon Valley approach of 'move fast and break things.' This agile approach to iterating and finessing products works great when you're building a mobile game or social network, but won't get you far when you are using patients as guinea pigs. However, these companies tend to be successful in building hype by doubling down on marketing efforts, wooing investors and in-turn building HealthTech unicorns with little more than a good idea and some technological know-how.

The other kind of HealthTech company is more medically-focused. By this I mean that they tend to be helmed by physicians or former healthcare experts, have a specific understanding of the solution they are addressing and apply much more rigorous, academic approaches to their science. This translates to a slower-moving, conservative startup approach that is very careful not to over-promise. As such, they don't put much investment in marketing and in-turn don't get much interest from investors until much later stages.

The first kind often burns bright but gets tripped up in regulations while the second never really builds any momentum. The solution to both is to meet somewhere in the middle. Don't break the system, make changes while working with the system. Focus on the science but don't lose sight of the need to build exciting communications around that science. The companies that seem to get it right are the ones that are succeeding in making a profit and making an impact. Many of these companies didn't find this middle ground on their own, either. Which leads to my last point:

5. Partner for Success

Traditional healthcare companies and tech-focused startups are finding success by combining forces.

Pharma and medical device companies are typically data-poor once their products go to market, as regulations in most markets around the world forbid direct engagement with patients. By partnering with relevant HealthTech startups, they gain agility, added value for their patients and most importantly, data to help drive further innovation and marketing. For the startup, they can often get access to global markets, leverage established channels for engaging medical experts, gain a deeper understanding of the health system complexities and receive needed capital. Both parties benefit from added credibility and co-marketing opportunities. A recent example is that of Healint's Migraine Buddy and Novartis, who announced joint research on the link between anxiety and depression.

While a relatively new space, HealthTech has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. Naturally, this has fostered collaborative organizations around the world that work to support the ecosystem, drive collaboration and nurture the growth of companies. If you are a HealthTech startup looking to scale or a traditional healthcare company looking to transform your business, the following organisations can be a big help in brokering partnerships, sharing resources and facilitating networking opportunities.


HIMSS is a global advisor and thought leader supporting the transformation of health through the application of information and technology. As a mission driven non-profit, HIMSS provides thought leadership, community building, public policy, professional/ workforce development and engaging events.

North America

Rock Health exists to fund and support entrepreneurs working at the intersection of healthcare and technology. They offer funding, access to medical, venture, legal and corporate partners, and office space to its portfolio companies.

MaRS Health works with an extensive network of partners to help entrepreneurs launch and grow their innovative companies with a special division focused on healthcare and healthcare technologies.

Asia Pacific

Galen Growth Asia is an industry catalyst that supports startups, enterprises and investors to accelerate and deepen their understanding of the US$6.3 billion Asian HealthTech ecosystem.

The Asia HealthTech Network is an independent, membership based association representing Asia's local and global HealthTech Community.


The European Connected Health Alliance (ECHAlliance) facilitates multi-stakeholder connections around ecosystems, driving sustainable change and disruption in the delivery of digital health and social care. Their global network of Digital Health Alliances connects 78 countries and 4.4 billion people (Europe, USA, Canada, China, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Americas and the Pacific). 

If you're a HealthTech company looking to differentiate and accelerate your brand and business, contact BriteBirch and our collective of independent marketing experts.

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