Making the Pivot to a Health Tech Startup

Mar 12, 2023 | Articles, Career Growth, Director Insights, Technology

By Sarah T. Khan

Focus on people and quality, and money will follow. For years, this mantra has helped me achieve multi-million-dollar transformations at small and large health systems through improved productivity, efficiency, culture, and quality. 

But there are limitations when a system is dependent upon a single unit, i.e., a clinician or staff member, for delivering its product, i.e., healthcare. 

I recognized for the first time during the pandemic that adopting technology could help us push past these limits. To be honest, my prior experience with tech had been implementing EHRs, and that made me want to run away screaming. But recognizing the transformational power of technology to connect and activate patients to take charge of their own care and health, I decided to make the leap: After 25 years in traditional healthcare provider operations, strategy, and consulting, I joined a health technology startup to help health systems use technology as a force-multiplier. We’re scaling support beyond episodic care to offer true integration of care into each patient’s daily life.

Pivoting to a healthcare technology startup was the right move for me. I’m living my mantra, turbo-charged. It has been the hardest and most rewarding work I’ve ever done. 

I’m sharing some insights that may be useful to anyone who wants to lead with a startup mindset: 

  • Alignment between your personal values and the company’s core values is critical. Belief in the mission is an absolute must because the mission represents you and your life’s focus. It should say the thing about you that you’re most proud of. 
  • When choosing where to work, choose the people first, the culture second, and everything else after that. Life is too short to work with people who only care about you in proportion to what you contribute to their annual bonus. In a startup, you spend (nearly) every waking hour with, or thinking about, the people you work with; they have to be worth it. Culture is the way you all conduct yourselves and your business, and you should be content doing that daily. 
  • That commitment to people and to the mission is crucial, because startups can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting for you and your family. Sixteen-hour days are routine for me. Every day is an all-out sprint for the length of a marathon, on repeat. And yet, somehow, you adjust. 
  • Prioritization is the most crucial tool in your toolbox because in small companies, there’s often no one to delegate to. If you are not certain that a pursuit will pull the company forward, don’t do it. You also have to be scrappy because money doesn’t flow freely. Only by narrowing your focus can you increase the resources and attention on the vital one or few initiatives that must move forward.
  • Every day must matter. If at the end of your day, you did not move the needle for the company, your team, or feed your soul, then you wasted your day. Ask yourself daily, “would the same result have happened without me?” It’s a great kick in the pants when the answer is “yes.” 
  • Investors play a big part of startup success in healthcare – 23 health tech startups hit unicorn status in 2022, with valuations of over $1 billion, according to CB Insights. But for every unicorn, there are hundreds of common but committed workhorses. Your passion and your team’s passion are only one variable in your success; getting others to buy into that passion matters just as much. 
  • The compensation package isn’t better or worse than any other company, but you’re there because you want to build something great from the ground up. I’m sure there are ways to get rich quick, but this is definitely not it. 

If you’re lucky, like me, you will feel the incredible highs of each new milestone and marker of success. I have the fulfillment of knowing my work matters and is making a difference, and the joy of walking alongside good people I care about and I know care about me. My journey so far has been worth every bit of the struggle. For anyone reading this far, reach out on LinkedIn if you want to learn more or chat about the experience. I’d love to support you anyway I can. 

Sarah T. Khan is Chief Clinical Transformation Officer with Phamily and Co-Chair of the CAHL Member and Volunteer Growth Committee.