Startups envision the post-pandemic telehealth revolution
From headset mental health apps that can shock a patient’s brain from a distance, the startups at this year’s Web Summit are betting on a major shift to “telemedicine” as the world emerges from the pandemic.
Using technology to virtually treat patients was a major theme at one of the world’s largest tech conferences, which returned to Lisbon this week after Covid-19 forced it to go online in 2020 .
“Most people these days use their phones for many everyday needs – why shouldn’t healthcare be one of them? Said Johannes Schildt, whose Kry company allows patients to make on-screen medical appointments.
“The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of these new technologies,” Schildt told AFP.
Swedish company Kry, which operates in five European countries, is far from the only app designed to eliminate the need to physically see a doctor.
And not all of these startups focus on physical health. Calmerry, based in the United States, is one of a growing number of online consulting companies that offer video sessions with mental health therapists.
Most public health systems offer little or no access to these services. With subscriptions starting at $ 42 per week, Calmerry co-founder Oksana Tolmachova said a key goal was to make therapy more affordable.
Other apps are taking a different approach to tackling the explosion of depression and anxiety seen around the world during the pandemic.
The mental health chatbot Woebot also invites users to discuss their issues, but the answers come from artificial intelligence rather than a human therapist.
While some may get pissed off about giving their all to software, studies suggest that confiding in a virtual human might encourage people to open up.
Woebot founder Alison Darcy, a clinical research psychologist, said the chatbot avoids the “baggage and social constructs” that come with human interactions – fearing that the other person will judge you, for example.
And given the shortage of qualified therapists relative to the number of people who need help with their mental health, Darcy argued that AI is a valid tool to tackle the problem.
“We must do everything to help people recover,” she said.
Darcy doesn’t think chatbots should replace human therapists, and AI has been shown to have its limits in healthcare.
UK health regulator MHRA expressed concern in March over the symptom checker software used by telehealth company Babylon, after reporting that it had failed to recognize some serious illnesses.
Critics of the switch to telemedicine also fear that providers might be tempted to offer patients cheaper virtual appointments when they would prefer to see a doctor face to face.
Several healthcare startups say the future lies in the mix of the two.
“Digital has an important role to play, but the physical experience is also vital – we also have physical clinics in Sweden, Norway and France,” said Schildt.
He also dismissed criticism that not everyone has access to services like Kry, which require a smartphone or computer and a decent internet connection.
Kry has 90-year-old patients who manage to orient themselves in his technology, Schildt said.
Globally, he insisted, “digital technology widens access” to health care.
A remaining challenge is that legislation in many countries has yet to catch up with the telemedicine revolution, although this has started to change in recent years.
Virtual appointments have been available through France’s public health system since 2018, while Germany last year started allowing doctors to prescribe the use of apps, such as weight trackers.
And between appointments, patients can continue to monitor their health remotely thanks to even more startups.
Ana Maiques, co-founder of Barcelona-based Neuroelectrics, showed a crowd at the Web Summit how a headset developed by the company can monitor patients’ brains from their homes.
The device uses sensors to show activity in different parts of the brain and can even send electricity to targeted areas, helping to treat conditions like epilepsy from a distance.
Spanish football legend Iker Casillas, meanwhile, is an investor in Idoven, a startup that uses AI to analyze data from home heart monitoring kits.
Its technology is designed to detect irregular heart rhythms that could prove to be dangerous – an issue Casillas cares deeply about, following a heart attack in 2019.
“We are the first company in the world capable of doing this,” company CEO Manuel Marina Breysse told AFP.