Monday, October 03, 2011

No Glass Ceilings: Medtech Women Gather at Unique Industry Meet-Up

MedtechWOMEN co-founders Amy Belt and Deborah Kilpatrick
Something new happened in the medical device world two weeks ago. It wasn't a new technology or a big research discovery, nor was it a breakthrough treatment for heart disease, cancer or diabetes, though it could possibly lead to one of these.  

What happened was an unprecedented medical technology conference, featuring exclusively women speakers, panelists and attendees. The sold-out Medtech Vision conference in Menlo Park, Calif. on September 15 and 16 brought together more than 200 business executives, entrepreneurs, investors, physicians, inventors, providers, patient advocates, policymakers and regulators and generated an energy that attendees claimed – and I will vouch -- was not just palpable but electrifying.  

The idea was hatched a year ago when Covidien Ventures director Amy Belt got fed up with the typical medtech meeting scene. "I was looking up from the audience and realized that there were no women on the podium – again. I was frustrated not to see women on the podium, as well as on boards and executive teams, because I know the women experts are out there and I wanted to hear from them," Belt said. So she pulled together a like-minded group and set about, with major support from Covidien, Abbott Laboratories and law firm Fish & Richardson, to create something new.  

The invitation that landed in my inbox July 27 came from a new organization called MedtechWOMEN and promoted the conference as "the first ever to highlight women on the forefront of medical innovation." Intrigued, I anticipated speeches about glass ceilings and male dominated C-suites. Boy, was I wrong. Instead, the presentations and panel discussions proved true to the meeting's agenda: to identify solutions to today's big challenges in medtech: a jittery venture capital community, shifting models of care delivery and reimbursement, increasing regulatory demands, and laser-like attention to healthcare outcomes and costs.

Speakers set right to the task with pointed advice. On an investor panel, Versant Ventures managing director Beckie Robertson advised against entrepreneurs working on small projects. "The opportunity for a win-win is in meeting a huge unmet need and getting out before commercialization," she said. Johnson & Johnson worldwide VP of new business development Susan Morano agreed, highlighting spectacular exits in the last two years for companies that genuinely responded to unmet needs. 

Among big populations with unmet needs are women themselves, noted Lynn Westphal, director of women's health at Stanford University. Westphal named several common diseases and treatments that are inadequately studied in women, explaining that females often display symptoms and respond to therapy differently than males. Imagine the opportunities, she suggested, awaiting companies that break the mold and extensively enroll women in large trials for cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes and other diseases. 

Interventionalists and surgeons had their say, too. Surgical oncologist Shyamali Singhal explained that for new technology to be adopted, "it has to be faster, easier, and more doable than what I'm doing now in surgery." And the designers of those new technologies need to interact more with physician users, said Bonnie Weiner, a cardiovascular researcher, clinician and former president of the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions. "Nobody ever asks us how we're going to use the device. Come to the cath lab and follow us around!" 

On a reimbursement panel, speakers agreed that the days of "build it and they will come" are over, and the way forward is to improve health outcomes or procedure workflow. "We look for clinically meaningful improvement in outcomes" backed by high-quality evidence, said Betsy Thompson, chief medical officer for the San Francisco regional office of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Advancing patient safety is also a good bet, she said: "If a new product improves safety but not effectiveness, we would probably cover it." 

Liesl Cooper, VP of global healthcare economics, policy and reimbursement at Covidien, pointed out that with patients paying more for their care, industry also needs to think more about how to educate them. "We're not used to that," she said. "Shame on the medtech industry for not touting better outcomes such as a 24-hour stay compared to a six-day stay!"

So what difference did it make that the people talking were all women? Amy Belt put it this way in her opening speech: "Leadership doesn't have to wear a navy blue blazer. Women represent 51% of the population, 58% of the population over 65, spend two out of three healthcare dollars, are half of the graduating classes of physicians today and over 90% of all the registered nurses. Why would it make sense for women not to be significantly represented in leadership positions where key decisions are made about the delivery of care and investment in innovation when they represent half the population, control the healthcare dollar and provide the majority of healthcare services?"

Beyond Belt's introduction, though, the conference was not about advancing women, but about advancing medical technology and healthcare. MedtechWOMEN founder Deborah Kilpatrick, a senior VP at diagnostics firm CardioDx, was pleased it went that way. Women's place in the industry "was just not what we were there to discuss," Kilpatrick said. 

Nevertheless, the thousand-watt energy at Medtech Vision was a departure from the standard atmospherics of industry conferences. It reflected, I think, the pride of 200 women medtech leaders seeing themselves assembled in one place, listening closely to each other, making new connections, and realizing – unexpectedly, inspiringly – that solving the challenges ahead may suddenly have gotten a little bit easier. -- Mary Houghton

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