Omada Health’s Sean Duffy on Being the “New Kid”


Omada Health’s Sean Duffy on what it takes to win over incumbents.

Sean Duffy

5 min read

At the 2016 Oliver Wyman Health Innovation, Summit Sean Duffy, Co-Founder & CEO of Omada Health, participated in a panel discussion titled “Matchmaking: Incumbents and Innovators Partnering to Accelerate Change.” Duffy knows a bit about this type of pairing: Omada Health, a San Francisco-based “digital therapeutics” company that provides diabetes prevention services, recently announced it is entering a partnership with Intermountain Healthcare and the American Medical Association (AMA) to prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes in high-risk adults. It is the AMA’s first such partnership with a digital company.

Here, Sean, who is also a member of the Oliver Wyman Health Innovation Center Leaders Alliance, shares his lessons-learned.

Being a first-time digital innovator in healthcare is a bit like moving to a new middle school halfway through the year. You don’t know anyone, your fashion trends are off point, and you have no idea which chemistry teacher you should try for.

The moment you land, you’re entering a space governed by unfamiliar rules, norms, and etiquette – all of which may be fundamentally different from your previous industry. Even if you have a medical background, enterprise healthcare is a universe where the established players have years of domain expertise and relationships. You’re navigating a highly specialized landscape where ignorance of an obscure regulation or naiveté of market dynamic won’t be accepted as excuses.

“As new actors in the space, it is our responsibility to amass evidence in order to win over skeptical incumbents to integrate our innovations.”

Healthcare today is world where innovation is proliferating rapidly – necessary in the face of rising healthcare costs and rates of chronic disease. It is proving to be effective in many circumstances, and yet structural roadblocks for advancement still exist. In some cases, there is good reason for those roadblocks. Healthcare is a highly regulated space because we’re dealing with issues as large as life and death, along with the most intimate personal information imaginable. As new actors in the space, it is our responsibility to both work with policy makers and regulators to ensure compliance, and to amass evidence in order to win over skeptical healthcare incumbents to integrate our innovations.

When we founded Omada Health, we set out to translate a behavioral intervention that had proven clinically effective in an in-person setting – the landmark Diabetes Prevention Program  -– and translate it to a digital one while achieving similar clinical success. But we knew that in order to achieve an ambitious mission, we would have to hold ourselves to equally ambitious standards. So early in Omada’s development, we made a few fundamental commitments:

Define the clinical problem

First, we set out to define the clinical problem we were trying to solve - rising rates of prediabetes and other obesity-related chronic conditions like heart disease. We named the population we were working to address, and targeted our program specifically for them. The clinical need was previously recognized by both the medical, and health economic, communities.

Gather evidence

Next, we dedicated ourselves to building an evidence base that could pass what we call the “Medical Director Test.” We wanted to be able to walk into the office of a health plan’s Chief Medical Officer, or a Fortune 500 VP of Benefits, and demonstrate both clinical effectiveness and ROI and share that we’ll never rest on our laurels and that we’ll keep innovating and publishing. So we became the first digital health company to publish peer-reviewed 1-year, then 2-year, results showing that our participants achieve – and maintain –clinically meaningful reductions in weight and blood sugar. And we tie these results directly to quantifiable reductions in healthcare spending for members and employees.

Make nice with regulators

Third, we insisted on proactively engaging policy makers that set the rules of the road for our industry. This meant understanding how regulations that were written before the advent of digital healthcare would apply to a new company during the greatest upheaval of the healthcare system in a generation. It also meant educating regulators on where we fit within that changing landscape. We’ve worked collaboratively wherever possible, and it’s been gratifying to watch as government has come to explicitly recognize the role digital tools can play in addressing our greatest healthcare challenges.

Embrace incumbents

Finally, we’ve sought ways to integrate innovative technology into existing healthcare processes, partnering with health systems and physician organizations to understand how digital health can empower providers, not displace them. We want to build lasting collaborations that can lead the way for how large actors in healthcare can incorporate new and innovative tools and processes. We’re hoping that we’re playing a small part in paving the way, and defining pathways for digital innovation.

So where digital health may have entered territory as unfamiliar as a new middle school, we’ve been studying the student conduct guide, making a few friends, and understanding where we fit in the landscape. Hopefully along the way, we’ve made the industry a bit more receptive to the unfamiliar – if those new entrants follow a few key principles.

  • Sean Duffy