A Moment with Gina Merchant: On Shiny Objects and Technology’s Path to Meaningful Behavior Change

“[Question] What’s the biggest barrier to getting things done in your line of work?
[Merchant] The biggest barrier I face, and observe others facing, is being asked to play by a set of rules and a culture handed down by the tech industry, which does not transfer well to the health tech industry. For example, product timelines are often too short to bring an effective product to market (and despite lip service to iteration, products often remain unchanged year over year). Also, the right combination of experts and leaders are often missing seats at the table; there isn’t enough investment in the right areas; and, in many instances, the industry needs more regulation. If you lead with the question, what is effective, it is striking how much of the health tech industry is crowded but not actually competitive. Also, it is inane to see so much capital raised, to witness such absurd valuations, and to experience so many untrustworthy marketing claims year after year after year.

I wish we could all align on the long-term value of doing the unsexy dirty work required to bring to market effective, reliable, and safe health tech products. If we could slow down a little bit, bring more humility to the industry, increase diversity in people and ideas, we would be much better equipped to deliver on technology’s promise in the health arena. Having said all of the above, I do believe that as the industry matures, it will inherently become more competitive, and investors, customers, and end consumers will demand better products and services.

[Question] Imagine you win an award for impacting healthcare. What did you do?
[Merchant] I helped bring to market a competitive product or service that meaningfully changed human behavior in a manner that led to cost savings such as reduced re-hospitalizations or reduced incidence of disease. The secret sauce of the product or service involved the translation of cutting-edge behavioral science methods, which enabled true personalization of the end-user experience.

[Question] What advice would you give innovators in healthcare?
[Merchant] Let go of what you can, and hold on to what you know deep down you should never let go of. For me, that has translated into backing down from strict allegiance to academically rigorous/tightly controlled methods and processes while also being unwavering in my commitment and vocalization of the following: (1) epistemology always matters; (2) documentation saves everyone time and money (and you’re screwed without it); and, (3) innovation often happens by combining fundamentals from across seemingly disparate fields – so don’t get distracted by the shiny objects vying for your attention. Also, to my fellow health tech innovators who identify as female, while you will experience discrimination during your career (from micro-aggressions to toxic workplaces), know that your voice is the voice of innovation, and your voice matters.”

Full interview, Holzwarth A. Pattern Health 2020.10.13