Surgery to Startup

A clinician's journey from the NHS to digital health startup, Huma. Together we are pioneering digital innovation in healthcare.

First published: 12 Aug 2019 | 4 min read

As my English teacher once remarked — ‘quotes and clichés are abominable and starting essays with either is treachery’. I’ve wracked my coffee-soaked brain to find a witty aphorism, esoteric epigram or any other way to avoid starting off describing my journey from medicine to health tech with a quote — sorry Mrs M.

It was a similar mental frustration when thinking of how to break it to Mum that I was turning my back on a career in surgery, to jump into a new life in a healthtech start-up.

First, despite her concept of surgery condensing to a posher version of butchery and cross-stitch, she had always seemed slightly more invested in the concept of me being a ‘medical man’ than I had. Second, her technological skills are as advanced as requiring me to log into Netflix for her (made easier by it being my account, naturally), so the concept of working in something techy might frighten her. Third, we’ve had the same cutlery since 2003, because she has a distaste for change.

After a gentle build-up of Dutch courage, I called her to say that I’m leaving my clinical career to join this wonderful-looking company called Huma, she simply remarked: ‘sounds great, son’.

This was surprising — obviously pleasantly so, but that’s probably a function of me ranting about the following things gradually/increasingly/incessantly over the preceding few months:

Being a doctor is inherently unstable

You vacillate between moments of abject joy and borderline tyranny, often within hours. There’s the palpable fizz of endorphins when you stabilise a frantically septic patient, do your first hernia repair, or have your ‘House’ moment and diagnose something bizarre and ridiculous (thank you year 3 biochemistry for the mad skills).

Then you endure the slog of working night shifts on your birthday, Christmas, New Years and Easter, covering ever-increasing patient numbers on ward cover because there are never enough doctors, and have people with clipboards lambast you because patient care doesn’t matter, it’s how long they spend in A&E that ‘matters’.

I’ve always been more ‘into’ research than clinical work

The stereotypical phrase repeated ad nauseam at medical school interviews goes: ‘I love science, and I love helping people’. Whilst I genuinely adored looking after people, and wouldn’t dare countenance regretting going into medicine, I’ve always been more inclined to enjoy playing with numbers on a whiteboard or letting a computer run stats on a database that make me look far cleverer than I am in reality — with the intention that this can drive improvements in healthcare.

Frankly, there are only so many times that you see ‘right-sided abdominal pain ?appendicitis’ in appalling handwriting before you realise that you’re not being challenged cerebrally.

You’re at the wrong end of the conveyor belt

In the hospital, you’re faced with people presenting when they are already sick. You’re very often dealing with an illness that has often been brewing or evolving over long periods of time, or the underlying (often preventable) predisposing medical condition has been there for a while.
I’ve always found the idea of taking a step back, and getting further up the chain fascinating — how can we stop people getting sick in the first place? How can we pick things up earlier and change the trajectory of people’s lives? How can we intervene and stop them being blue-lighted to hospital in 12 months’ time? That’s the cool stuff.

The denouement occurred one rainy evening on the Metropolitan line after carrying two surgical bleeps for 13 hours — I realised that I needed to stop whining, stop spending so much money on overpriced hospital coffee and start being selfish by directing myself to where I can keep my brain happy.

After this: I took the plunge.

Four months later: there is still some gentle chaos but it’s enjoyable, as well as the odd late night hammering out the minutiae of a major project, but there is Deliveroo.

Being an in-house clinician at Huma allows me to use my brain, to think, to work with a bunch of ridiculously talented people of all sorts of backgrounds and try to solve problems that are sometimes almost incomprehensibly complicated.

The company mission is ambitious to the extent of it almost being certifiable, but what else is more fun than that?

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