In every situation there are winners and losers. The question is the ratio of winners to losers and there will undoubtedly be far more economic casualties than beneficiaries of the Covid-19 pandemic. But one sector that does stand to benefit from the current situation, if its companies play their cards right, is health tech start-ups.
Push Doctor is a Manchester-based online doctor platform start-up. Founded in 2013, Push Doctor had to fight hard to reach the point it recently achieved of being trialled by a handful NHS doctors surgeries. The Push Doctor app allows patients to book an appointment with a GP through the app and see them online, only physically going into a clinic if the initial consultation comes to the conclusion that is necessary.
In trials across four GP clinics in England and Wales last year, users of the app were able to see a doctor within an average of 26 minutes, compared to a two week wait for a physical appointment at a clinic. That resulted in the start-up winning tenders to extend their service across 550 GP surgeries. About 120 are already live with the rest still to be onboarded.
But it took the company years of struggle, and a change of CEO after the company’s original co-founder left in 2018, to reach that point.
Progress has accelerated quickly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two weeks ago, the Push Doctor app saw consultation numbers surge by 30% in a week. Last week sessions with online doctors jumped another 70%.
And Push Doctor is far from alone when it comes to health and medi-tech start-ups which have, until recently, been fighting tooth and nail for trials and contracts. Many are suddenly seeing a surge in popularity and having to come to the aid of the very health services that have been making their lives difficult by dragging their feet when it comes to digital transformation.
Swedish the digital GPs app Kry, which also operates in Germany, Norway and in the UK and France under the Livi brand, has also seen its number of consultations double over the past two weeks. Ava Health, the Berlin-based symptom checker app founded in 2011 by British paediatrician Claire Novorol saw assessments show 300% growth last week.
For Booming Health Tech Companies The Challenge Has Become ‘Not To Screw This Up’
Why digital doctor consultation apps, symptom checking apps and online pharmacies are booming is relatively obvious. As Push Doctor chief executive Wais Shaifta says:
“It’s the perfect storm. Most GPs are now closed, lots of doctors are working from home”.
That means health tech start-ups have been given the opportunity to step up and make a contribution to easing the burden on groaning healthcare systems. If they do, their ongoing value should be clear and result in greater urgency around how these solutions are integrated into mainstream healthcare over coming months and years. It’s unfortunate that it has taken as serious a situation as the coronavirus pandemic to act as the catalyst. But for health tech able to handle any of the healthcare needs that traditionally require a physical presence, business benefits from what is unfolding are inevitable.
Not only should increased revenues and user numbers help these companies raise further funding once the worst of this crisis has passed but it should accelerate the wider adoption of digital health solutions by several years.
Luke Buhl-Nielsen, Kry’s vice president of business development and operations also impresses the need for start-ups in the digital health space to now demonstrate their worth:
“The Covid-19 crisis is acting as a catalyst for the whole digital healthcare and telemedicine industry. Legislation is moving at breakneck speed, consumer behaviour is changing very rapidly”.
Push Doctor’s Mr Shaifta expressed a similar sentiment:
“Between now and September everyone in the market is going to move to a digital provider. This is our opportunity to show the benefits digital can bring to the NHS and the Patient. It’s up to the digital providers not to screw this up”.
For companies like Push Doctors and its peers, they will have a new challenge. Up until now, their biggest problem has been trying to encourage the NHS, individual surgeries and private providers to adopt their technologies at a faster rate. That’s unlikely to be the challenge going forward.
Healthcare Services Suddenly Want Digital Solutions Yesterday
A couple of weeks ago the NHS pushed every doctor surgery in the UK to reduce face-to-face appointments to a minimum. The 400 surgeries Push Doctor had been working towards onboarding, with delays largely on the side of the surgeries themselves, are now immediately ready and desperate to ‘go digital’.
Ada Health’s Claire Novorol, co-founder and chief medical officer, has also commented on the rapid change of sentiment:
“We’re seeing a willingness from big healthcare organisations to be very responsive, work fast, find ways to work together without having to go through all of the lengthy processes you usually would”.
Joost Bruggeman, co-founder and CEO at Siilo, a Dutch start-up that has developed a communications tool for medical professionals also remarks on the overnight change to their sales cycle:
“It usually takes 12-18 months to convince middle management. Right now they’re saying ‘Give it to us, we’ll figure out the contracts later”.
Usually glacially slow health care sector regulators have also received a rocket up their proverbial on digital transformation. The French government has already quickly acted to change the laws around digital doctor consultations being reimbursable through the national health insurance scheme.
For now, the move is temporary but if providers can step up to answer the call in the hour of need, it would seem likely that legislation will be adapted more permanently. Germany has also removed restrictions on health insurance in the digital consultations space. Mr Buhl-Nielsen predicts:
“This will change or speed up legislation by 5 to 10 years in certain countries. We’ve made 10 years’ worth of progress on that front in a few weeks”.
Health Tech Start-Ups Are Struggling To Rush Out New Products To Meet Demand
Not only are health tech start-ups facing a rush of demand for their existing products and services but the current situation around the Covid-19 pandemic is quickly throwing up the need for new directions. Kry has quickly pulled together a new free-to-use platform healthcare professionals from anywhere in Europe can offer video consultations on until the crisis is brought under control.
Not only do digital consultations mean more people can see a doctor faster, it also means they are not venturing outside and potentially putting others at risk. Even more importantly, it helps keep vital healthcare professionals safe from exposure. Health services will be under enough strain as more doctors, nurses and other workers themselves become infected with Covid-19 and are forced into quarantine for periods.
It’s a huge demand on the tech teams of start-ups. Kry’s Buhl-Nielsen explained the effort required to prepare the free platform for launch:
“It was a working-round-the-clock effort. From engineering and product to ops and clinical quality teams, figuring out what’s useful for clinicians and patients, and how to make this seamless and safe.”
Back in the UK, AccuRx, another London-based start-up, managed to put together a video consultation service for doctors over a weekend. The company’s core businesses is facilitating text message communication between doctor surgeries and patients, such as appointment notifications.
But its no-frills 2-day build video consultation platform is holding up. 12,000 consultations were made through it during its first week of service and 63,000 in its second.
And companies that are not necessarily ‘digital first’ are also quickly pivoting to produce technology applications that can keep them operating. Berlin midwife app Kinderheldin is quickly trying to build an online platform through which to provide a replacement for expectant mothers who had been due to attend pre-natal classes.
Ada has set up an emergency team to focus on the new Covid-19 pandemic features and solutions its partners need to help them handle the situation. The company have just launched a new product specifically designed to offer advice and assessment of users potential infected with Covid-19.
The Ada app simply helps users assess whether their condition requires next steps, like seeing a doctor. It does not offer diagnosis and its main benefit for overworked health services is reassuring anyone that almost certainly doesn’t need to see a doctor in person. But also making it easy for people to get a quick assessment that would then encourage them to go and see a doctor if that seems the appropriate course of action. The app has been averaging one assessment per second over the past couple of weeks.
Ms. Novorol commented:
“It’s non-stop; every single day we’re talking to current partners and many other organisations. Health systems are overwhelmed – by the volume of calls to clinics and to the triage line – and the pressure on frontline services is really extreme. All of these services are looking for help, and see that digital tools, self-assessment triage with information and guidance personalised to somebody’s situation, are going to be really important”.
London’s Babylon, another digital doctor platform that has been partly integrated with the NHS already and also offers a symptom checking AI app, that has attracted a level of criticism in the past around its accuracy and potential to panic users, has also introduced a ‘care assistant’ for Covid-19 patients. It offers self-isolators advice on how to minimise the risk of them contaminating others as well as logging symptoms and offering virtual consultations where appropriate.
Not All In-Demand Health Tech Is Patient-Facing
Not all health tech, and not even all health tech seeing increased demand during the coronavirus pandemic, is designed for use by patients. Communication tools such as that provided by Dutch start-up Siilo is also vital to the digital transformation healthcare systems need to undergo to improve efficiency.
The Siilo app facilitates chat and communication between medical professionals, offering an environment that they can share confidential information within. Doctors around the world need to share information like never before at the moment and a secure, and purpose-made platform offers a solution general chat apps like WhatsApp cannot.
The app’s download numbers rocketed by over 500% over a few days. CEO Joost Bruggeman says his companies “metrics are skyrocketing. I’m not exaggerating”.
Health Tech In The Post-Pandemic World
The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly highlighted two major issues in global healthcare systems. The first is that budgetary constraints and cost cutting over years now have left facilities and resources badly ill-equipped to deal with a sudden spike in demand. The second is that any outbreak of a highly contagious kind requires a minimum of personal contact if it is to be kept in check.
Good digital and tech solutions offer cost and time efficiencies that have now been brought sharply into focus. Digital services and products can be much more quickly and flexibly scaled than traditional processes and systems. The future of health services clearly needs both of those advantages.
Health tech is seeing its mainstreaming accelerated by up to a decade by what’s happening today. That is good for the young companies and entrepreneurs in the sector. It will also hopefully be good for patients around the world long after the Covid-19 pandemic fades into the background.
This article is for information purposes only.
Please remember that financial investments may rise or fall and past performance does not guarantee future performance in respect of income or capital growth; you may not get back the amount you invested.
There is no obligation to purchase anything but, if you decide to do so, you are strongly advised to consult a professional adviser before making any investment decisions.