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How to Become a Healthcare Innovator The healthcare industry needs startups, and startups need the healthcare industry. Are you in?

By Karin Ratchinsky

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Legislative hearings and extensive media coverage may have highlighted the unsustainable direction of our healthcare system, but this industry still remains the federal government's fastest-growing expense. Some $1.1 trillion was spent in 2015.

Related: Why Healthcare Industry Has Become Favorite Of Entrepreneurs

Without major reform, healthcare expenses will continue to skyrocket, reaching nearly 20 percent of GDP by 2021. And, with researchers predicting a 42 percent increase in chronic disease cases by 2023 -- not to mention the 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day for the next 13 years -- things may get worse before they get better.

But let's consider two major positives: First, with both patients and stakeholders investing in our healthcare system, we're all on the same team: We all want to see more positive outcomes for our loved ones and improvements in the health of our nation, both literally and financially.

Second, this industry is unbelievably ripe for innovation. Innovation and entrepreneurship in healthcare are bringing truly unbridled potential to the table. By creating actionable intelligence that can improve care outcomes through analytics and applications, we are empowering individuals to make better choices about their own health.

From breakthrough treatments that thwart cancers, to technologies that grow retinas and build smart prosthetics -- allowing disabled individuals to regain their eyesight and walk again -- the potential is electrifying.

Healthcare is ripe for innovation

Healthcare has historically lagged behind other industries in terms of innovation, but recent legislation has propelled the industry to adopt critical new technologies.

The digitization of information, virtual applications, standardized infrastructure and investments in next-gen communications are all factors in the landscape of modern healthcare. These developments indicate that providers are ready and equipped to make some big changes. With projected growth of 5 to 7 percent through 2019, healthcare IT budgets seem to be following the trend.

It's about time. For years, healthcare consumers have demanded greater access, more personalized treatments and better tools to take charge of their own health outcomes. Now, the masses are proving that they're ready to try such new things. In global surveys, 49 percent of healthcare consumers have said they are willing to use wearable health-tracking technology, and 75 percent have said they believe they will use something similar in the future.

Consumers, in fact, believe in the usefulness of wearable healthcare tech, even as demand for digital options is predicted to grow across all age groups. Providers recognize this potential market, too: Nearly three-quarters of healthcare executives surveyed have said they anticipate a positive return on their investments in personalized healthcare technology.

The technology and infrastructure we need to meet these challenges exists. What we need next are innovative partners who can help providers empower and inform their patients and clinicians.

Related: 5 Trends Reinventing Healthcare

How to become a healthcare innovator

The healthcare industry needs startups, and startups need the healthcare industry.

According to Mike Biselli, a leader in healthcare IT and the visionary behind Catalyst Health-Tech Innovation, "We're not going to revolutionize healthcare just through the largest organizations that have dominated the space for the last 50 years, and it won't happen with startups alone, either. We have to do it together."

So, how can you become a trusted partner creating the innovations healthcare providers need?

1. Join an incubator or health-tech community.

Incubators provide mentorship opportunities, assist with seed-funding needs and allow startups in similar fields to pool certain resources. Perhaps more importantly, emerging businesses can work in close proximity to other innovators and thus build new connections and collaborate and gain insight organically.

The resulting cluster effect -- interconnected businesses working together in a region -- has shown phenomenally positive outcomes for multiple industries, including the medical community.

If you don't want to join an existing incubator, however, you might consider building one. New incubators and collaboration communities are popping up nationwide, including Catalyst HTI's new 300,000-square-foot workspace in Denver, dedicated solely to empowering and facilitating healthcare innovation for startups and Fortune 500 companies alike.

2. Track and adapt to venture capitalist funding patterns.

Venture investments in healthcare are on the rise and in 2015 were projected to reach $9.4 billion -- their highest level since 2000. In fact, VCs made more than 400 new healthcare deals in the first half of 2015.

Patterns suggest that 2016 will be another big year for telemedicine tech and back-office tools, and other products. Look at which startups are securing VC funding, and evaluate your opportunities to innovate in an in-demand market.

23andMe, for example, saw an opening in the personal medicine and information space. This company has found success helping people trace their genetic ancestries to ascertain valuable historical and medical data about themselves and their descendants.

If your specialty isn't a hot commodity at the moment, don't stress. Opportunities for collaboration exist in many areas of healthcare, including cost transparency, tracking and wearable technology, as well as big-data analytics, personalized care and real-time remote healthcare solutions.

3. Identify an unmet need, and fill it.

Don't just focus on something you think might be useful. Identify an actual pain point in healthcare access or delivery, and create something that alleviates it.

For instance, over the last two years, the number of healthcare providers seeking to move key applications to cloud platforms has grown exponentially. As a result, entrepreneurial players in the industry are now investing in software-defined networking that allows users to schedule bandwidth bursts or set predetermined thresholds.

This helps meet providers' needs for end-to-end security and performance and allows their networks to scale automatically with business demands.

In another example, Doximity's founders recognized the need for clinicians to collaborate on difficult issues. So the company created a consultation and collaboration platform to address complex patient cases, and today it's paying off. With the ability to make $250 to $500 per hour for their opinions and support, about 1,000 physicians were joining the network weekly, in 2014. Within one year, 400,000 U.S. doctors had become members of Doximity's medical social network, and this number continues to grow.

As Biselli said, "Without dramatic change, we are trending towards a $5 trillion problem, and I believe policy-makers, academics, clinicians and innovators all need to have a seat at the table. It's going to take all of us working together to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity to transform healthcare."

Related: Health-Tech Incubators See Influx of Startups

We are the generation who will do that. The computing power and technology infrastructure are in place, as is an enormous appetite for it at every level -- from regulators to VC's to incubator founders and healthcare leadership. And it is a phenomenally exciting space to be in. Interested?

Karin Ratchinsky

Director of Healthcare Strategy, Level 3

Karin Ratchinsky is director of healthcare strategy at Level 3, and an author, speaker and contributor to the health IT community. Ratchinsky provides expert industry coverage on trends in health IT, and emerging care-delivery strategies..

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