Medical students and doctors typically plan out their career time lines as meticulously as Big Ben chimes on the hour. Though in a year when Big Ben has taken a break for some restoration work, perhaps it is time for entrepreneurial medical professionals to also take some time out to re-think their career goals.
What happens when you medical career is progressing perfectly well but one day you get bitten by a bug. An entrepreneurial bug. This bug leaves a stubborn and lingering itch that seemingly will only be relieved with a dose of career uncertainty, and an injection of risk-taking behavior.
Doctors and medical students are increasingly encountering this bug, as it sweeps from Silicon Valley Eastwards. However, they are reacting in a variety of ways, and the lack of strict treatment guidelines is disconcerting for many. Some doctors get the entrepreneurial bug and immediately swap the scrubs for sweatshirts, the stethoscope for software programming. Some doctors get the bug and react by gradually building their startup whilst clutching reassuringly to the financial safety net of clinical work. Others still stoically ignore the bug, and focus wholeheartedly on their first love of medicine, trying to fend off the philandering advances of this so-called entrepreneurial bug.
The reality is that there is no universal, one-size-fits-all answer to the big question of if and when to quit your clinical career to focus on a healthcare startup. The comforting truth, however, is that there are a number of successfully proven approaches to tackling this dilemma that is afflicting an increasing number of doctors. The common thread in all the stories below is that if you get the entrepreneurial bug, you will succumb to it. The real question is whether you succumb full-time or part-time.
In order to exemplify the variety of career paths taken by doctorpreneurs (doctors turned entrepreneurs!) here are several case studies to satisfy the medical profession’s obsession with evidence-based decision making:
Stephanie Eltz, Founder of Doctify has managed to continue her work as an orthopaedic surgeon whilst running a startup.
“As a doctor, you have a duty towards your patients and your clinical work has to be prioritised above everything else. I would never compromise on that. I am 150% focused at the hospital. You have to be very organised and compromise on your life outside of work [to balance clinical and startup work]. Say goodbye to your friends and the pub. Investors will be concerned when you talk about balancing a clinical career and driving your business. It’s not unusual for med tech companies at all but you have to make sure your absence is covered and that you add as much value as your full-time startup colleagues.”
Joshua Landy, Co-Founder of Figure 1, says his Critical Care job adds crucial credibility to his startup.
“Yes, continuing to practice medicine is very important to me, both personally and professionally. I practice two weeks per month, so I essentially split my time between Figure 1 and the hospital.
Working side by side with an interdisciplinary team in the hospital, I learn how my colleagues work and what tools might be developed to help them. I definitely think that’s beneficial for Figure 1. It provides an important dimension to my role as Chief Medical Officer.”
Jim Gray is an orthopaedic surgeon, Clinical Director of an NHS hospital, and Founder of Tuberosity. Though he doesn’t find three to be a crowd.
“The balance I have between my clinical, personal and my business life is complementary. I see the business as a hobby not a chore so I’ve got a healthy balance. I look forward to weekdays as Mondays bring emails about our startup [alongside a long list of patients and hospital management duties no doubt…]”
Rupert Dunbar Rees, Founder of Outcomes Based Healthcare, has technically left medicine but says founding a healthcare startup is ‘still doing medicine, just of a different kind’
“A lot of us have been in that big dilemma around whether you leave medicine or not. I eventually did [after working in general practice for several years]. On the team I’m the only one who has got that far down the line to leave medicine. Would I say I’ve left medicine? Probably not. I’d argue that we are all still doing medicine, just of a different kind. I got a long way down the track before I noticed that I was unhappy in my clinical medicine. My biggest piece of advice is, if you are having these feelings early, listen to them. There are lots of people who are very unhappy in medicine even though they are doing wonderful jobs. I personally would listen to those feelings.”
Jessica Mann, Co-Founder of TrialReach and ex-cardiologist, values her years in specialty medicine but now focuses exclusively on her startup.
“It depends on how much sleep you need…but I think if you have a passion for either of them [medicine or your startup], at one point you will need to make a choice. I do think that you should be putting in a few years of seeing patients in the specialty you like because that is going to make you able to empathise with patients’ needs.”
Sean Duffy, Co-Founder of Omada Health, left medical school and went ‘all-in’ to his startup venture.
“So at first I paused my medical training, took a year off, and took another year off, and I had to make a choice. Everything worth doing in life is harder than you imagine it to be, once you get going. As an entrepreneur you’re just fighting gravity each and every day, so it requires an all-in, full-in, dedicated approach I think.”
Jamie Wilson, Founder of HomeTouch and ex-Psychiatrist, valued the financial safety net that part-time medical work offered in the early days of his startup career.
“If you give up your other job [as a doctor]and then start a new company, and you have problems raising money, and you’re not bringing in sales, then you quickly arrive in a financially difficult position. My advice would be, if you possibly can, find some niche whereby you can continue earning some regular income, whether that’s locuming [part-time clinical work] or doing other work such as advisory work, that gives you flexibility. Remember that most non-medics do not have this option, so you are giving yourself an advantage.
Thom van Every, serial healthcare entrepreneur and ex-obstetrician, advises seizing the moment whilst still practicing medicine. Carpe Diem!
There is rarely a perfect moment to launch your entrepreneurial idea and you never have perfect information. But we are so lucky that we can do locums [part-time medical work] and earn income while developing our plans. Don’t delay!”
Neil Bacon, ex-Nephrologist and Founder of iWantGreatCare, didn’t want to merely ‘dabble’ with startups; he left medicine after practicing for several years to enter the startup world full-time.
“I’m not a believer in doing things on the side – in dabbling. From my perspective, you can’t mess around if you really want to make something happen. If you want to really do something properly, change the way things are done, it takes all your time and effort. Half-measures won’t cut it.”