Health start-ups: new healthcare businesses in the age of the smartphone and gig economy

The world is changing.

Of course, it was ever thus but the speed of change in recent years as a result of technological advances has been immense. Just by way of example, around the turn of the century (not that long ago, at least in our eyes) having one internet-connected computer on each floor of the office and barely using email was normal. That seems almost incomprehensible by current standards and children these days probably wouldn’t believe us if we told them.  In the same way, we are seeing a shift in the way our clients want to set up new healthcare businesses.

Whilst this isn’t by any means limited to doctors, we are increasingly seeing doctors and other medical practitioners who approach us for advice, wanting to engage in private business in a different way.  With increasing use of smart phones and apps in recent years, doctors are among the innovators.  In many ways, the technology is liberating, allowing doctors both to work and to win work in new ways.  Other recent events, such as the junior doctors’ contract challenges, have made some think that they would prefer to use their medical skills outside the traditional routes.

However, “the law is an ass” (as they say) and there can be legal pitfalls for those who are not wary. For this reason, within this article (which will be the first of a series) we are simply highlighting some of the legal issues that can arise in the new world of technology innovation and the ‘gig economy’ to help those who are interested in reaping the potential rewards through development of new healthcare businesses.  We hope these initial observations will “set the scene” for what is to follow in future editions, when each of these scenarios will be analysed in greater depth:

  • In resourcing a new business, what is the line between offering someone work when they want it and employing them (with all the obligations that entails)?  The recent Employment Tribunal ruling against Uber highlights the need for clarity on this complex area of law.
  • One of the first things you’ll do will be to set up a website for the new business, but are you clear about whether you own and control the website? This can be something of a minefield but there are some simple tips that can protect you as you develop the website.
  • How can you possibly guard your hard-earned intellectual property in the age of Google and file-sharing? Protecting your ideas is an important way of protecting both your brand and your earning power from it.
  • What on earth does the Consumer Rights Act have to do with doctors? The Act covers a wide range of areas, including digital services, and it is important to be aware of what can and cannot go in your contracts.
  • Were you aware that certain apps – such as those designed to help a person monitor or control their health – might count as ‘medical devices’ and therefore need to comply with the Medical Devices Regulations? This is a technical area – but clearly it is essential to stay on the right side of the law!
  • Did you realise that by taking advantage of cloud computing you might be in breach of the Data Protection Act? These days computer servers can be almost anywhere – and anything based outside the European Economic Area might land you in hot water, so understanding data law in the digital age is key.
  • How do you develop online terms and conditions – and how do they differ for websites and apps?  Being aware of issues such as privacy and cookies policies is essential if you’re running an online business.
  • Can you prescribe medication online or via an app and what are the pitfalls? This is a complex area, so it’s as well to know what’s what.

The kinds of legal issues set out above are in addition to the usual issues one has to consider when starting any new business which include:

  • what is the right legal structure?
  • what are appropriate governance structures?
  • what is needed to get contracts in place with customers, staff, and suppliers alike?

Of course, there are also non-legal matters too such as:

  • crunching the numbers on the business plan,
  • mulling over insurance policies, or
  • getting creative with branding and logos.

However, in this series, we will be concentrating on the issues which are more novel – and our colleagues with specialisms in the areas identified above will be sharing their experiences to help get your new businesses from the drawing board to the board room without falling foul of the law.