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COVID-19 accelerated healthtech: can it sustain the pace?

COVID-19 accelerated healthtech: can it sustain the pace?

Lavanya Bhamidipati, investment associate at InHealth Ventures a $50 million fund investing in healthtech start-ups, explores what comes next for healthtech, now the digital adoption curve has begun to plateau following months of frenzied growth.

When the pandemic hit, healthtech stepped up. Entrepreneurs across the world focused on getting their tools into the hands of clinicians; arming them for the fight ahead. Emerging technologies – from communication apps to telehealth solutions – went from nascent to essential; with one observer remarking that 10 years’ worth of innovation occurred in 10 weeks. But as the first wave of the pandemic subsides across Europe, will digital health solutions retain the expanded role they’ve achieved in recent months, or will health systems’ affection for tech recede along with the virus?

According to the UK government, Britain is home to thousands of healthtech start-ups, with more than 100 with the potential to become unicorns. It’s the second fastest growing sector in the UK tech space, hot on the heels of fintech. In the US, there are over 15,000 ventures with health as their focus. Within this burgeoning ecosystem, we have everything from app-based offerings targeted at consumers, all the way through to complex AI applications tailored to specific clinical settings.

As pressures mounted on health services during the early months of 2020, a growing focus on these digital solutions emerged. Primary care was catapulted into making appointments fully remote. Innovative telehealth solutions like Nye Health and Heydoc stepped in to help; rapidly creating secure phone and video consultation technology that could be rolled out in minutes. Across Europe and the US, the need for remote patient engagement and better staff communication led to a raft of digital solutions being adopted, smashing even the most ambitious OKRs.

The pace was helped in great part by a reduction in bureaucratic hurdles and unprecedented levels of inter-Provider cooperation. Start-ups who had been slowly navigating the process of partnering with the NHS and other health providers were seeing doors fly open and solutions embraced with blistering speed. 

As we edge out of crisis mode, the inevitable slowdown in adoption has begun. However, there seem to be no sign of a wholesale return to the analogue practices of the previous decade. For example, the vast majority of primary care GPs are talking excitedly about retaining a phone-first primary care model that can slash unnecessary appointments and create more time for face-to-face care. 

Rather, decision makers and clinicians are now starting to ask more detailed questions about the technology born from the pandemic. Some of these are purely practical: will we need this once the immediate crisis has abated? Other questions are more nuanced: is this technology safe and fit for long-term use in clinical environments? Healthcare systems demand glitch-free, 100% reliable technology which makes a substantive difference in the highly specific reality of clinical environments. 

Health systems are now entering a new phase. As many start to focus on how they deal with addressing significant waiting lists in elective care, while continuing to manage further waves of the virus, we’ll see digital technologies continue to play a vital role. Startup CEOs we’ve spoken to on both sides of the Atlantic speak of an abrupt shift in the willingness of provider customers to engage with them, with sales cycles contracting from the typical 1-2 years to a matter of months. Having said this, the financial challenges that many hospitals face means that demonstrating a clear and rapid return on investment is more important than ever to closing deals.

Challenges in need of addressing are everywhere. Kheiron Medical are trialling their AI-based reporting product to address breast cancer screening backlogs. Laudio will be protecting exhausted clinicians from burnout to ensure we don’t walk headfirst into a staffing crisis. Advanced technology will be used to triage waiting lists, digitise patient records ahead of the winter, and help healthcare teams critically analyse their own data. 

As governments transition to managing risk across populations we should expect renewed focus on preventative health. Technologies which allow people to take ownership of their own health – through access to data and smart tracking solutions – will grow in precedence. The potential of companies which empower citizens through actionable insights, allowing them to proactively manage their health are currently generating a huge amount of excitement on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Likewise, clinicians will be looking to embrace greater remote management of ill or vulnerable patients. Wellframe, for example, translates evidence-based, peer-reviewed guidelines and literature into an interactive daily checklist delivered to patients through its mobile app. As users engage with the Wellframe app, their data is shared in real time with their organisation’s care team dashboard. Tools such as these, that keep people well and spot problems before they become severe, will help reduce pressures on exhausted health services grappling with treatment backlogs. 

Additionally, as the dust settles on the first phase of the crisis, increased focus on the toll it has taken on mental health has begun. Youth development experts are calling on augmented mental support for children, and NHS helplines are being established for staff processing the trauma of recent months. Solutions that can help scale this type of provision and cater to emerging mental health challenges will prove pivotal. Platforms such as Healios, whose ThinkNinja product for children and young adults provides skills and self-management tools for those experiencing increased anxiety, are set to thrive. 

COVID-19 has also shone a spotlight on weaknesses in our healthcare infrastructure. Weakness that technology is well placed to fix. Ahead of future virus waves and winter pressures, health systems must create more resilient supply chains, break down silos, prioritise interoperability of systems, and get a stronger grip on their data. Innovations that address these weaknesses without creating fresh silos or friction points will flourish. 

No longer disruptors, many healthtech companies have now earned the right to be considered partners. Their role in the healthcare process has been made truly visible for the first time and the positive impact of these emerging technologies abounds. As the dust settles and allegiances are reviewed, we’re likely to see a considered recalibration of the leaderboard. But there’s no doubt that technology’s role in healthcare is going in one direction only – and that’s something to get truly excited about. 

Med-Tech Innovation

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