Kristin Polman, Senior Digital Health Associate

6 minute read

15 December 2021

By Peter Springett

Head of Content, Upstart

Hi Kristin, good morning. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your role at Upstart? 

Hi, I’m Upstart’s Senior Digital Health Associate. I've been with the company for over four years and work across all our healthcare clients and projects. It’s a really enjoyable role, especially seeing how our efforts are helping to drive better healthcare outcomes. 

What does digital disruption mean to you and how does it affect healthcare? 

Well, it’s not just digitising existing ways of doing things. It's about using digital solutions to solve problems, and then designing new processes as a result. That's particularly difficult in healthcare, because processes are so entrenched - and often for good reasons. 

Protecting patients and supporting doctors is a priority and the cost of being wrong is incredibly high - “move fast and break things” doesn't work in healthcare. We have to be sure that we're not doing harm with new digital solutions, especially if we're relinquishing human decision making and control in the process. 

What motivated you to follow a career in digital health? 

I earned my MD at Columbia medical school between 2004 and 2008.  Not exactly the dark ages! But this was still a time when top US hospitals were managing patient care with paper notes and putting them into a folder, never to be read again. Different systems within the same hospital didn’t talk to each other and notes and lab values had to be retyped or rewritten, all of which increased the risk of errors and harm to patients. 

Healthcare attracts the smartest, most altruistic people who make enormous sacrifices to build careers in medicine. I was inspired to help them overcome the barriers that were preventing them from doing their best work and having the biggest impact on patients. That matters more than ever today when the profession has been put under so much pressure by Covid-19. The backlogs are just so much greater than we could have imagined. 

What would you say is your sort of digital disruption USP?

Good question! I think my USP is that I have good, wide-ranging knowledge about a lot of elements of healthcare across the US, UK and Europe. I know a lot about the digital health landscape, the companies that are out there and the problems they are solving. 

So when we're working with a company whether it's a small startup or top 50 pharma company that has a specific goal in a particular therapeutic area, I complement that with a broader industry view. It also means that I can help connect businesses, so helping startups find a partner in large pharma or helping a larger organization import innovation by working with a smaller business.  

When you look across healthcare in the past year or a couple of years, what are the most exciting transformations that you've seen?

The acceptance of remote access for healthcare is really exciting. There will always be situations where face-to-face is more suitable, but speaking from experience, with three children, I do not want to go to face to face appointments with a doctor unless I have to. 

I know as well that it’s freeing up my doctor’s time. There's more work to do in this area, but over the past 18 months, I've seen a renewed interest and investment into digital across healthcare and that medical professionals and patients are increasingly accepting of this approach.  

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?

The patients and doctors who work hard every day, and who don't always have the systems to support them. Especially the past 18 months when the pressure on everyone in hospitals, surgeries, care homes and schools has been enormous. 

What's the book that is closest to you right now?

Right now? Well, it’s completely unrelated to healthcare! It's called Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside by Dieter Helm. It’s about disruption in agriculture and sustainability. I like the way it focuses on how we can better incentivise farmers to prioritise conservation and rewilding rather than just traditional commercial farming practices. 

What helps you to relax when you’re not working with Upstart? 

I do a lot of singing. I’m a member of the chamber choir at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, and my other favourite choirs are Tenebrae, The Sixteen and Voces8. When it comes to composers, my Spotify lists are full of the works of Eric Whitacre and Vaughan Williams.

Android or Apple on your smartphone?

Apple, that's the way it’s always been. I was converted when I started med school and I visited the Apple Store in New York City. I got a free iPod and printer with my first laptop and that was it! 

What was the last wireless gadget that you bought? 

It’s probably my Apple Watch. For day-to-day life it's perfect, especially the calendar. Plus the exercise tracker. I do a lot of cycling and it's good to get a bit of recognition for all the energy that I’m burning. 

What’s your biggest prediction for healthcare in the next few years?  

I think you have to be realistic and say that there won’t be one big change. It will be more incremental with late-adapter hospitals and GP practices moving onto digital systems. To some extent it seems to be generational, with the proportion of digitally native GPs increasing every year. For them, digital is a part of their everyday life and they’ll be more accepting of change as long as it continues to protect patients, deliver better outcomes and genuinely make their work lives better. There’s been a huge outpouring of GP love for AccuRx, a company that builds software to simplify communication between healthcare staff and patients. A great example of what good looks like in UK digital health! 

The Covid-19 backlog will also be disruptive. We will need to come up with creative and innovative approaches to work through that. I hope to see it involving organisations from across the healthcare spectrum - they all have something different to contribute.

Final question! If there was one thing that people could read about the future of healthcare and society, what would it be? 

The book I recommend the most is called The Hundred Year Life, by Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton. Their argument is that the three-stage life of education, work and retirement is dead. Instead, we will experience multiple stages of education, work, retirement and sabbatical throughout our lives. I quote sections and ideas from this book all the time. I can strongly recommend it. 

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