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10 Tips for Clinicians Working on Product Teams

Carolyn Bradner Jasik, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Omada Health

At Omada, we have the opportunity to help create interventions that can reach millions of people. As both the CMO of Omada, and a clinician who still sees patients at UCSF, the contrast can be stark. Coming from a clinical background, it can be difficult to work with a product team -- especially one at a growing start-up with competing priorities. During product development, a healthy -- and occasionally intense -- creative tension exists when clinical and product teams disagree about a path forward. 

Our product team is continually looking for ways to improve our digital care program, launch new features, and test new ideas. Standard practice for product development in technology companies is to release features and improvements in the lightest-possible version to test a hypothesis -- commonly known  as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). 

The clinical team’s role is to ensure that those ideas and features never threaten our users’ safety, and are in line with clinical best practice. But to work effectively with the talented designers, engineers, and others responsible for Omada’s programs, we must also embrace collaboration. Product features and improvements are determined by a process where lots of input is gathered, but decisions of what to build are ultimately made by the product team.

To help clinicians new to product development in the world of digital healthcare as they onboard at Omada, we provide them with 10 guidelines to follow to be effective collaborators:

1. RESPECT THE PROCESS

Clinicians and healthcare professionals may know the clinical subject well, but the product team knows the product and the business well. The ‘perfect’ feature from a clinical perspective may be too costly from an engineering perspective; or it may simply take too long to implement in a rapid development cycle. Product managers will solicit input from clinical teams -- as well as coaching operations, engineering, data science, and legal teams, among others. The clinical point of view is critical, but not the only one.

2. ANSWER THE QUESTION

Clinical minds think holistically - we like to solve problems at a macro level.  So when we are asked a question, we often come up with a complete solution, instead of addressing a small area.  When the product team asks us for input, sometimes they are asking for “big thoughts” on how to solve a challenge from multiple angles. More often, however, they want clinical input in a single area. Our role as clinicians is to answer the specific question at hand.

3. INSIST ON OUTCOMES

Omada’s  business is organized around delivering outcomes for our participants and our customers.  It’s how we are paid, and it’s part of our DNA. When working on a new feature, we think deeply about what outcome metric is impacted, how it could most benefit the participant, and how it would be most persuasive to a clinician. Then we must figure out a way to measure that concept - either directly or indirectly through a proxy measure. Clinicians are in the best position to reference which approach is the most likely to impact outcomes based on the scientific literature.

4. GET ALIGNMENT

Clinicians must represent the comprehensive clinical voice in product meetings. Conflicting medical perspectives communicated to the product team are confusing and inefficient; before any of our team presents a perspective in a cross-functional meeting, or writes a primer on a topic, it is circulated among our larger group. This allows all the disciplines - medical, pharmacy, behavioral science, nursing, etc. - to be incorporated. 

5. COME PREPARED...WE START WITH SCIENCE

Clinical intuition is a valuable input rooted in hundreds of patient interactions, compiled over the course of years. But opinions are much stronger when supported by research and clinical best practice. As our team recommends new features or design elements, we consult the medical literature and clinical guidelines to ensure our point of view reflects best practice. When making a recommendation, we include references -- validated questionnaires, studies, and others -- then write our answer in a primer that the product team uses when they create the feature.

6. BE SPECIFIC

Clinicians have immersed themselves in research or clinical background on a topic for years or decades; it can often be difficult to distill knowledge that comprehensive to a few points. But for the product team to incorporate our recommendations, we need to be simple, systematic, and specific. Though we do provide background information to supplement our views, we work hard to break it down to simple and direct recommendations, with a maximum of five specific points, priority ranked

7. ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS

Medical professionals are used to being the experts in the room.  Our nature is to take control to advance our point of view. At a digital health company, clinicians need to start with questions instead of answers, especially as we get up to speed. Before we form opinions about a feature or clinical workflow, we work to understand the system, and how the team functions.

8. BE CREATIVE, HACKS ARE OK

Coming from a highly structured clinical environment like a health system or academic center, we are accustomed to a lot of process and formality around patient-facing services. At Omada,  we’ve built a robust clinical team because that level or rigor is critical to our product. But innovating quickly requires us to think differently about things that may have seemed absolute in our prior lives. When we find ourselves saying “it has to be this way,” we challenge ourselves to think about whether there is a creative, lighter, or faster way to do it. 

9. DEFEND THE MCVP


To rapidly innovate without sacrificing clinical rigor, we focus on what we’ve coined the “Minimally Clinical Viable Product,” or the MCVP.  Agile software development is a tenet of product development, and advocates for letting the MVP be tested in the market. But in digital health, you cannot put an unsafe product into market. Our practice is to only ship features that meet standards set, and approved by, our clinical team. Our clinicians are the only ones who know the threshold for when a feature meets the MCVP standard - a term we’ll discuss more fully in an upcoming post.

We use human-centered design methodology when building our product. But if a feature has been “de-scoped” to the point where it is now longer likely to be clinically impactful, or if it poses a safety risk, the clinical team has final veto power. Because we are paid based on outcomes, our product needs to be robust enough that it generates clinically meaningful results.

10. HAVE FUN!

Clinicians come to Omada to approach things differently, test ways to deliver care digitally, and impact health care at scale. It’s serious, important work. But it’s also a fulfillment of why many of us got into healthcare in the first place. So while it can be discouraging to be challenged in product discussion, or have an idea left on the cutting room floor, we never forget that we have a unique opportunity to change lives. It’s a privilege -- and one that requires we stay humble and realize that no single person has the final say in product decisions.

Be sure to check out Dr. Carolyn Bradner Jasik's recent CNBC feature where she and Omada's SVP of Product, Mike Tadlock expand on their efforts to foster effective collaboration.