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Why Lived Experience is the Key Ingredient for Culturally Competent Health Tech

America will soon be a majority-minority country; we need health care innovators to reflect that diversity

When Kimberly Wilson was 30 and living in New York City, she developed uterine fibroids, a serious medical issue common to Black women like herself. She visited four different doctors, all white men, but found that they weren’t able to empathize with her—two of them dismissed her pain outright. She ultimately sought out a Black physician and found one who was able to help her—in Baltimore, 150 miles away.

This experience opened Kimberly’s eyes to the inequities baked into the American healthcare system. It inspired her to found Hued, an app that connects Black and Latinx patients with health care providers of color who can provide “culturally competent” care. It’s an important idea in a country where, according to research, patients of color are more likely to have their health concerns dismissed by doctors, and less likely to be prescribed pain medication than white patients with similar health complaints.

Kimberly was one of 12 entrepreneurs who shared her story last month at the Shaping the Future of Healthcare Work in the US Startup Showcase co-hosted by Village Capital and Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures. Each of the twelve founders who presented are creating health tech innovations that support overworked and oftentimes underpaid nurses and community health workers. By providing products and services to these front line workers, they are in turn helping to reduce healthcare disparities among underserved, vulnerable, and at-risk populations at scale.

There was one big distinction that made last week’s showcase different from many other health tech events: each of the entrepreneurs, like Kimberly, were creating solutions based on their own lived experience with the healthcare system.

The Value of Lived Experience

Census experts project that by 2045, America will be majority-minority: more than half of Americans will be something other than white. That means that the American healthcare system of the future will need to serve more and more patients like Kimberly Wilson.

We have a long way to go, to get to a point where the system is set up to serve those patients. But when you look at health tech innovation—that is, which health tech startups get funding—there’s a worrying trend.

These disturbing demographic trends hold true in health tech as well. Earlier this year, Village Capital and Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures conducted proprietary research on a sample of close to 200 health tech startups working to support frontline workers—a representative group that has collectively raised $2.7 billion in venture capital funding. We found the following diversity stats:

  • Companies with all-male founding teams received 81% of venture capital funding. Companies founded solely by women received just over 3%.
  • The largest percentage of funding overall (57%) went to founders who were white men. White women received close to 8% of funding in comparison to Black, Asian, Latinx, and Middle Eastern female entrepreneurs who received anywhere from 0-2%.
  • Middle America has been left out of the equation. While medical hubs in the Midwest and Northeast have received some capital, much of it still goes to startups based in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. As a result, many non-coastal entrepreneurs have been left behind, despite the fact that these Americans are more likely to struggle to access healthcare services.
The result: innovation that is designed around the personal experiences and priorities of people from a small segment of society.

This isn’t for a lack of good ideas. During the startup showcase, we heard from entrepreneurs building solutions based on their own lived experiences.

For example, we heard from Mehmet Kazgan, an immigrant, who spent several years running a community health center with a patient base that was 99% Medicaid recipients. He had seen firsthand how these grassroots health centers are doing critical work with bare-bones funding and how they often lack the expensive data management tools and logistical software that are common at large hospitals. This puts an extra administrative burden on the already harried front line health workers at these centers.

Kazgan created Cliexa, a lean data management platform designed for smaller clinics. The platform automates data collection and scheduling to allow health workers to focus on patients and themselves.

We also heard from Carrie Shaw, founder of Embodied Labs. Studies have shown that women spend more time as informal caretakers for older family members than men. When her mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, Shaw struggled to explain to professional caregivers the exact nature of her mother’s visual impairment. In a moment of inspiration, she modified a pair of glasses that incorporated VR to simulate the impairment. The professional caregivers immediately understood what her mom was experiencing and were able to adjust their care accordingly.

Shaw understood the application that tools like this could have for the broader caretaker community. She founded Embodied Labs to create immersive VR content to help caregivers better understand the behavioral health contexts of multigenerational families, LGBT individuals, and others in order to provide better care through empathy.

Empowering Innovators

At the end of the Startup Showcase, three companies were selected by Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures, along with a group of healthtech investors, to receive $50,000 each in grant funding by the Johnson & Johnson Foundation. The selected entrepreneurs will also receive mentorship from Johnson & Johnson executives:

  • Health in Her HUE received the strongest overall prize. They are building a digital platform that connects Black women and women of color to culturally competent healthcare providers, services, and health content.
  • NextStep received the frontline health worker prize. They are an accelerated digital healthcare training and job placement company that aims to radically expand the supply of qualified Certified Nursing Assistants to address the nation's caregiver shortage crisis.
  • Clinify Health received the health inequities prize. They are a cloud-based platform that works with physician practices located in underserved communities to achieve financial stability, remain independent, and improve population health outcomes.

The responsibility for diversifying healthtech innovation lies not only with investors, but also with the broader healthcare community. We can all do our part to empower founders who are building companies based on their own lived experience by providing them with access to funding, pilots with large healthcare systems, and mentorship to scale their solutions faster.

We need a more empathetic and human healthcare system—and that starts with supporting the development of innovations that will define US healthcare over the next five, ten, and fifty years. Let’s make sure that we’re encouraging innovation from everywhere to build a more equitable future for all.