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Like many healthcare professionals, Sean O’Neill never envisioned himself as an entrepreneur.
After earning his PharmD at Bouvé in 2003, O’Neill was on a traditional career path for 13 years, first as an ICU pharmacist and then as the medication safety officer at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“I wasn’t looking for a new job; I was happy in my role,” said O’Neill. “But I saw a problem and set out to solve it.”
The problem was undetected medication errors caused by increased automation.
In his role overseeing medication safety, O’Neill realized his hospital had no way to systematically track and prevent medication errors caused by technology. One problem was the overwhelming volume of electronic data produced by hospital technology. The second problem was a phenomenon known as “alert fatigue.” Automated devices were sending out so many false alarms that clinicians were missing or ignoring many of the warnings.
According to a study posted by the National Institutes of Health, “clinical devices sound hundreds of alarms per patient per day, creating a cacophony that can overwhelm, distract, and desensitize health workers.” The article states that there were 566 alarm-related hospital deaths between 2005 and 2008. O’Neill points out that the true number of medication errors linked to technology is impossible to gauge because reporting is voluntary.
In 2016, O’Neill set out to address this problem by co-founding Bainbridge Health, a startup dedicated to reducing errors caused by infusion pumps, which deliver drugs automatically to hospital patients.
“We picked that niche because that’s where the harm was happening and where we thought we could have the biggest impact,” he said.
Not only does the company synthesize the mass of unorganized data, it also provides hospitals specific recommendation on how to decrease errors.
During a recent visit to campus, O’Neill was amazed at the growth of Bouvé’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“When I was a pharmacy student in the 1990s, there were basically two career paths—hospital and retail pharmacy,” he said. “I’m proud to say that the school I went to has been injecting entrepreneurship into its curriculum.”
That change began in 2005 when pharmacy alumnus Joseph Fleming, BA’70, MS’71, founded the Health Science Entrepreneurs, a Bouvé organization that provides training and mentorship to faculty, alumni, and students preparing to launch a healthcare startups. To date, the group has worked with more than 60 fledgling companies.
In 2016, Bouvé created a complementary organization that exposes students to the entrepreneurial spirit. The Healthcare Innovation and EntrepreNURSEship program offers its services to all health science students, regardless of their area of concentration.
“The frontline caregivers are responsible for the most innovation in healthcare,” said director Karen Giuliano, who spent 20 years in the startup world before coming to Bouvé in 2017.
Giulano, an associate professor of nursing, said the program plans to launch a minor in health innovation in fall 2019 and develop teams of work to create teams of engineering, business, and healthcare students.
“The best and most cost-effective outcomes for patients will only be achieved when all members of the healthcare team work collaboratively,” she said.
O’Neill, who is the chief clinical officer at Bainbridge Health, did not fit the profile of the typical entrepreneur.
“I’m not a risk taker,” he said. “My wife and I have two kids, a mortgage, car payments, and student loans. I was not a kid in my garage with a dream, nor was I Mark Zuckerburg in his dorm room trying to change the world. I was a just a guy looking for a stable life.”
O’Neill said his business experience was “zero” and his tech knowledge wasn’t much better when he decided to make the switch. This is the basis for his first piece of advice: start by building the right team.
He likened it to assembling a successful basketball team by finding people who have complementary skills. O’Neill had 13 years of experience in hospital medication safety, so his first action was to hire a CEO and a technology expert.
“Both of my co-founders are risk takers and they had been living that life,” he said. “They were already serial entrepreneurs.”
O’Neill’s second piece of advice comes from his own ambivalence while deciding whether to take the entrepreneurial plunge. He quoted the words of multimillionaire Shark Tank star Daymond John: “Don’t wait for the perfect time; you will be waiting forever.”