A wristband that monitors your physical condition every day; a sphygmomanometer that measures your heart rate and blood pressure via your smartphone; connected weighing scales to track your weight over time: these are just some of the products sold by Withings. Founded in 2008, this French company specialises in connected devices and mobile apps for fitness and health monitoring. The winner of several awards at the CES in Las Vegas, Withings exploits the potential of digital technologies so that users can benefit from all the advantages of healthcare 2.0.
As Head of the healthcare division, Alexis Normand is in charge of promoting adoption of connected devices among the general public and industry influencers, i.e. companies who want to promote their employees’ health and pharmaceutical companies, doctors and researchers looking to monitor their patients with digital tools. Alexis Normand told us more about this booming market.
A RISING INTEREST IN CONNECTED HEALTHCARE APPS
What do the companies who come to you want?
“Over the past two years or so, more and more companies have been supplying their employees with connected devices to encourage them to walk more and set themselves exercise goals.”
A lot of insurance companies, pharmaceutical labs and technology companies come to us. We also work with heads of SMBs or big companies who use our products for personal use and want to get their employees to use them.
In 2015, we launched a monitoring solution that respects users’ data confidentiality. It’s a corporate wellness platform whereby you can invite people to take part in a collective challenge, set up teams and get them to compete with one another, track healthcare data, and get the app to send notifications for coaching or send questionnaires. If users give their consent, you can compare their data and see patterns emerge. That’s what we did with the SNCF (French national railways, Ed) with the Marche en lignes.
“A lot of companies come to us because they don’t want to miss out on digital opportunities.”
It’s often one-off projects, but some of them are more long-term. In this case, our devices – connected wristbands, for example – are incorporated into healthcare management platforms, such as Vitality. We these systems, users are awarded points every year: the more you walk, the more points you win, and the more cut-price healthy food you can buy, thus creating a virtuous circle.
“As we’re a multi-expertise company, we can do everything ourselves and we can use the companies as influencers.”
We’ve recently started offering private online stores for companies, that their employees can use. The company subsidises part of the products, so the employee just has to pay a small contribution. In return for setting up the private stores, we get visibility and promotion with their employees. There was a strong demand for this from companies.
How have doctors taken to connected devices?
A lot of doctors have noticed a decline in the quality of their care due to a lack of information on the patient’s condition and their activity between visits. But with a connected wristband, you have a better idea of the result of an operation. For example, you can now, see whether a patient who’s just come out of hospital after having a malignant tumour removed from his spinal cord can walk two days later or if he’ll be bed-ridden for eight weeks and can thus adapt the treatment accordingly. There are lots of other examples like that: in neurosurgery, obesity surgery, orthopaedics, etc.
Theoretically, hospitals and clinics are in charge of medical follow-up. But in practice, in France, anyway, there are hardly any financial penalties if they don’t do their job properly. It’s different in the States: if a patient complains because a procedure wasn’t successful, the healthcare organisation isn’t reimbursed by Medicare, the American health insurance system. With this system, healthcare professionals really need to know what’s going on and thus monitor patients remotely. Connected devices are a fairly cost-effective way of doing this. Recently, doctors have been using consumer solutions more than the more expensive professional versions.
“Professionals use the same devices as the general public: as they’ve been tested on more people, they tend to be of better quality. The solutions are more robust, particularly where connectivity is concerned.”
In France, there are several economic models: the device is either bought by the patient or on loan from the hospital. This can work out well for the hospitals: given the money saved by a shorter hospital stay, it’s worth spending €100 on some connected weighing scales.
“THE BEST WAY TO CONVINCE PEOPLE? SHOW THEM exAmples OF THINGS THAT WORK!”
Connected devices can also be used for early disease detection. In Toulouse, doctors have rolled out connected sphygmomanometers and wristbands for diabetics. Diabetes, if caught early, can be partially reversed. So detection is crucial: the wristband generates alerts and helps the patient change his habits and behaviour.
What about pharmacists?
“Where connected devices are concerned, pharmacists are pretty curious, but don’t have the necessary technological know-how.”
It’s not a pharmacist’s job to sell technology or electronics: they sell medicine. So the whole eHealth market is slipping through their fingers; they didn’t see it coming. In France, they’re trying to get in on it, but as pharmacies are small shops, adoption is very slow. In the States, there are two pharmacy chains: Walgreens and CVS Health; we negotiate with them just as we do with book and record store chains. In France, we have 22,000 contacts and we’ve already supplied hundreds of pharmacies. But it obviously takes longer.
“THE professionAL MARKET INCREASED THREEFOLD In 2015”
For the same use – monitoring weight, for example – a connected device is much cheaper than its non-connected equivalent. 20 years ago, computers weren’t connected to the Internet, whereas these days, it’s unthinkable to have a tablet without Wi-Fi.
“We don’t know yet how quickly it will happen, but maybe one day, we’ll think it’s strange for weighing scales not to be connected.”
How does the French connected healthcare device market compare with other countries?
In terms of engineering and creativity, we’re pretty good. But the French market is too small. The Americans have the advantage of a huge market, so things move faster over there. In Europe, you have to operate country by country. It’s actually easier for a French company to grow fast in the States.
We’re also very bad at motivating the healthcare sector to adopt innovation. The Americans may not have the world’s best healthcare system, but they have very powerful incentives to adopt eHealth technologies. Their system is decentralised, which means there’s more scope for experimentation and risk-taking. Because healthcare is more expensive over there, there’s more incentive to find solutions that reduce costs: because people don’t have great healthcare cover, they’ve more incentive to stay healthy! Whereas in France, because we have great care and great a health insurance system, we tend not to worry about our health until we get sick, rather than focus on prevention and early detection. The French have a pretty long life expectancy, but a poor healthy life expectancy. Basically, we live a long time but are ill for a lot of it. So there’s not much incentive to deploy connected healthcare devices here.
Withings’ connected devices are available from their online store.
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