Image credit: Morgan McKinley

The Holy Grail in healthcare is finding an unmet need for a certain medical challenge. Medical companies dedicate time, money and resources to find solutions in the hope they will have a place amongst what may already be a crowded market.

With reduced R&D spending and the pressure to generate sales, companies increasingly rely on the potential of unmet needs – but is there always a potential? Do all unmet needs serve a true purpose and create a commercially viable opportunity?

What is an unmet need, after all?

Varying definitions

While the statistical office of the European Union, Eurostat defines unmet needs based on reports of patients who did not received certain expected medical treatments, the National Health Services (NHS) in the United Kingdom takes a healthcare system perspective and relies on the work of Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), who collaborates closely with clinicians and researchers, to list challenges the NHS faces and find the unmet needs among them. In fact, this is the same definition applied in the Accelerated Access Review.

Clinical ‘needs’ can take many forms, and in a healthcare setting generally relates to some lacking or compromised human functionality that requires assistance, or a bodily function that is functioning normally and, for choice or social reasons, requires controlling (i.e. conception). Therefore, an unmet clinical need is where the aid, or control mechanism, is unavailable or unsuitable for an individual or group of people.

Is it really a need?

There is no lack of unmet needs in the market. I remember speaking to a healthcare investor who told me her group was always looking for unmet needs to invest in. I nodded, whilst knowing inside, that all devices are introduced to meet an unmet need in some way, meaning the investor really was looking for everything and nothing at the same time.

Also, the number one misconception about unmet needs is to state them relative to existing technologies. Consequently, typically any technology development will be biased towards incremental changes of that technology.

The process of determining and validating unmet needs is not always easy. It can be tempting to overlook this critical aspect of medical technology innovation in the enthusiasm to rush to develop a solution. However, if the problem is not understood fully, how does one know that the right problem is being solved and, thus, that any solutions to it are appropriate, optimal or actually needed?

Who is defining it?

It is impossible to describe a proposed methodology to find, validate and describe an unmet need within an article. Instead, let’s focus on two principles that can validate whether the process to identifying an unmet need is looking to the market or to your own company’s product portfolio.

Observe, do not ask

Image credit: Addicted2Success

The famous quote from Steve Jobs, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”, seems to be perfectly in line with what Henry Ford had said more than a century earlier.

The best method to find an unmet need is by observing problems, not asking stakeholders or users about their needs. When we look into innovations and insights, users are too involved into existing solutions to see beyond and properly describe what they need or want.

Not a long time ago, doctors requested devices to allow them to perform laparoscopic procedures in an easier way. In a rush, several companies flocked to the market with rotating, articulating, power-enabled devices and several different techniques emerged to treat difficult patients such as morbid obese, pediatric and others. While almost all manufacturers were focusing on developing the best products, a few other companies observed hundreds of surgeries and focused on identifying the true unmet need of laparoscopic surgery: achieving the same surgical precision regardless of the patient. Thus, Surgical Robotics were born and would be considered the enabler for minimally invasive surgeries as indicated by different studies, such as this one from the Annals of Surgery.

External pain points over internal opportunities

As mentioned earlier, the temptation to identify an unmet need and look into one’s product portfolio to address the issue is too tempting. When the development of a product starts before the process to identify the unmet need, the consequence is a flawed and biased strategy.

Any unmet need is being addressed somehow, either partially or ineffectively. What are the technologies used? Are there any limitations in structure or learning? What is causing pain (frustration) to healthcare stakeholders?

Back to our example, doctors were frustrated with how even the latest and best laparoscopic medical devices would bring very little benefits for situations such as organ adhesion – when internal organs are strongly attached to each other or to other body structures, making it difficult to treat or remove them. The medical device advances were not innovative enough to combat the biomechanical limitations of the human hand.

In the meantime, Surgical Robotics introduced a new concept that expanded the surgeon’s ability beyond the natural human limits. Suddenly, doctors could operate through robotics and use medical devices in a way that was previously impossible for human hands, such as having 360 degrees of rotation with a (robotic) hand. That has made excisions much easier and faster. In addition, robotic hands do not shake after extended periods of efforts.

While several manufacturers were advancing their own product portfolios in an attempt to explore the “opportunity” of complicated laparoscopic procedures, other companies realized the pain was beyond the devices utilized. It was inherent to our own human physical limitations.

Moving ahead

To make it clear: unmet needs are among the best source of potential markets for medical companies; guiding them to effectively demonstrate value. The issue is in how companies identify unmet needs and position solutions for them.

Developing a detailed understanding of the unmet need, and why it is unmet, will inform the key requirements for the development of any technology. In addition, it can also reinforce any business case to seek funding and support subsequent product adoption.

What process do you follow to identify and validate an unmet need?

Do you plan to address an unmet need? Are you satisfied with the process used to identify this unmet need? Stay tuned to our newsletter, there will be more articles about this topic. Subscribe to our newsletter Value Intelligenceand join our LinkedIn group to keep up to date with the discussions.