May 17, 2021

The truth and lies of becoming a 'digital doctor' innovator

Three digital health innovators reveal what it's really like to make the transition from bedside to startup

Does founding a digital medical company count as being a 'real doctor'? Those of us who have opted to leave behind the traditional pathways of medicine are confronted with this question more often than we expected.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a doctor as “a person who has been trained in medical science, whose job is to treat people who are ill or injured.” Digital doctors who left the bedside to innovate from outside of the system should also qualify, because giving medical care (the definition of 'treating') can take place in various ways and public health doctors, for example, have been around for a long time. As digital doctors, we’ve left the clinical ivory tower so that we can bridge the physical and digital world.

We all left a well-trodden, age-old career path as doctors to put our medical expertise to work in the startup world. Along the way, we received a lot of (mostly) well-intended advice, mainly from people who chose to stay in traditional practices. We want to share our learnings with others who are thinking of making the same transition.


These are some of the most common warnings or criticisms we heard from fellow doctors and laypeople when we voiced our decision to step out of clinical care.

We’ve gone through to sift the truth from the lies — read to play a round of truth or dare.

1. They say: You studied medicine, so now you have to work as a doctor.

The truth is: You don’t…

People argue that because you spent so much to study medicine, you have to work clinically for most of your career.

Picture yourself at an all-you-can-eat pizza place. After paying €25, you roam the buffet. The first slice tastes amazing. So does the third. By the eighth slice, you feel stuffed. But since you already paid, you shove three more slices into yourself. Right?

This is the 'sunk cost fallacy' — the tendency for people to let decisions be influenced by previous decisions. In reality, you won’t get your €25 back, whether you eat one slice or ten.

If you can help more people away from the bedside, don’t let your talent go to waste.

It’s the same with medical school. You can’t go back in time and recoup the fees. If you stop enjoying 'traditional' medicine, a career change is sensible. You learned about yourself and life. Your skills and knowledge will be valuable everywhere. If you can handle medicine, you’ll manage a lot of things. And it is all about lifelong learning these days anyway.

Leave your spot to someone who loves it more and go where you can have the biggest impact. If you can help more people away from the bedside, then don’t let your incredible talent go to waste.

2. They say: You’ve been (or will be) corrupted by money.

The truth is: You may earn more but it isn’t necessarily corrupting.

Some doctors falsely believe that the non-clinical world is driven mostly by monetary incentives and therefore, careers in business and innovation are inherently ill-suited for altruistic doctors. But this completely misses the point of why we made the transition.

The German system is incredibly inefficient and ineffective — we spend €1bn daily on healthcare. Doctors still use fax machines, we see high burnout rates, massive indirect costs incurred to patients and certainly, many life-years wasted among healthcare providers, patients and their relatives as a result of inefficient care delivery. No industry has such bad net-promoter scores, and the digital chasm between our daily lives and the hospital is stark.

We need ambassadors who can change healthcare from the inside.

Sweeping changes are needed to meet the needs of an ageing population and the subsequent economic challenges. The question is, do doctors want to be actively involved in this change or just let it happen? We need ambassadors who know healthcare from the inside to lead innovation that will solve some of healthcare’s problems.

Admittedly, there’s more money in digital innovation than in clinical practice. But you’ll also probably be able to help vastly more people than if you were seeing them one-by-one in your clinical practice.


3. They say: You are going to miss your patients and the emotional rollercoaster of the job.

The truth is: You DO!

We do not know a single doctor who left the bedside and does not suffer from moments of nostalgia thinking back to patient care. The emotional highs and lows of the profession are also something that doctors miss, though they can take a heavy toll on the emotional health of medical professionals.

What exactly are we missing though? The daily contact with patients is about deep emotions and human touch, individual interaction and personal stories. A doctor's day is shaped by often life-changing interactions with patients, seeing individuals entering a new stage in their life, via a surprising diagnosis, a successful treatment, an intervention, a relapse, an accident — as well as when dealing with the fate of a loved one.

By being allowed to share those moments, to guide patients through them, to unravel mysterious symptoms and to give hope, doctors find themselves on the rollercoaster of human nature. Being a hero is definitely addictive.

Being a hero is definitely addictive.

But is one-to-one patient care really the only place to feel and experience this momentum and interaction? It is not. If you are thirsty for meaningful interaction, acceptance and acknowledgement, there are numerous ways to find these.

You could be working in healthcare innovation developing new tools for social prescribing, reaching hundreds of patients in their homes and communities. You could be researching digital pharmaceutics or new frameworks on evidence in the digital world. You have the ability to bridge bedside and digital innovation. Patient care is always meaningful — not just when you are standing by the bedside.

It can be addictive to go from feeling like a demi-god because you just saved someone, to feeling miserable because of the death of a patient. But remember that it comes at a price. In America, the suicide rates of doctors are approximately twice as high as of the general population. And if it is the rollercoaster you are missing, entrepreneurship provides some of that up-and-down thrill too.

Susanne Kreimer
Susanne Kreimer is a medical doctor with clinical experience at the Department of Urology at Charité Berlin and is the founder of a healthtech startup in stealth mode.

4. They say: You should make sure to become a specialist or consultant before leaving the bedside at all.

Truth is: Ha! That is a clear no.

Historically there has been a clear path to becoming a 'real' doctor. Be good at school, even better at med school and stay on the traditional clinical path until you reach the top of the ladder. You might leave for research work in between, but make sure to at least follow the existing educational structures. That’s what we were told.

We absolutely reject this advice. Not only is today’s healthcare often incompatible with family and career, but the 'become a specialist' advice shows the bias of an inherited and outdated system. If you want safety — perfect! If you want to make a difference, you might need to take a different path.

Make sure to get clinical experience for at least two years.

Here is one 'but': make sure to get practical experience beyond what you learned in med school. Gather clinical experience! Get to know the realities of inpatient care at least for a couple of years. It is fundamental to understanding colleagues, future customers or partners and gives you insider knowledge of the system.

After two years, the learning curve plateaus. Often at this point medical professionals will leave to specialise in a particular field. But why not branch out to learn leadership skills, Python or other business concepts instead?

5. They say: You will miss the authenticity of the job.

The truth is: You definitely will!

Medicine is rooted in the illness, sorrow and distress of people — of your patients. You see patients at rock bottom and at their most vulnerable state: naked, covered in blood or other body fluids. Medicine is inherently human, real and often terrifyingly honest. Pain, blood and death don’t lie. In the face of a severe illness, social status, money and reputation all melt away. Illness also does not discriminate; from homeless people to migrants to movie stars and sheikhs, you see them all in the ER.

Medicine is inherently human, real and often terrifyingly honest. Pain, blood and death don’t lie.

With that in mind, the business environment can appear rather profane and secular. It is really difficult to get upset about a misaligned typeset on a PowerPoint when you were able to rescue a dying patient just the other week. Don’t worry — you definitely won’t forget your roots.

Final advice:

Be brave and maybe even bold — shape the future of healthcare actively and freely in whatever way is right for you personally. You can be anything you want — a digital doctor, entrepreneur, innovator, thought leader, consultant and much more — there is no boundary!

We are convinced that the future of healthcare will be exciting, challenging, and above all promising. We need a strong symbiosis from both frontline clinicians inside the systems and doctors innovating from without to bring our healthcare systems to the next generation of clinical and digital care.

Only together and by empowering one another will we be able to move from sick-care to an efficient and effective health-care system based on the individual patient needs. So let’s be the protagonists of this massive transformation — not just spectators.

Truth or dare?


Anne Latz is a medical doctor with an MBA and a doctorate in neuroscience, and is now chief medical officer at osteoarthritis management startup alley

Susanne Kreimer is a medical doctor with clinical experience at the Department of Urology at Charité Berlin, as well as business economist and founder of a healthtech startup in stealth mode. She is a founder, host and weekly publisher of the medical podcast medbuzz.de.

Sven Jungmann is a formerly practising medical doctor and chief medical officer at FoundersLane’s health practice. He sits on the advisory board of two startups and has his own startups, including a medical education gamification company.