Healthtech After Covid: A Post-Pandemic Overview
An unsurprising side effect of the pandemic was the huge rise in investment in healthtech companies. As recorded in Hampleton’s latest sector report, healthtech companies raised an impressive $57.2 billion in funding in 2021, which was an almost 80% increase from 2020. But was this a temporary spike fuelled by a global health crisis, or will growth be sustained?
Some key data points in our research indicate that the industry will continue to be in rude health. For example, while the proportion of total investment made by private equity groups fell by almost a third during the early stages of the pandemic, we saw these players significantly step up their spending in 2H2021. This indicates confidence among investors that the take-up of digital healthtech will continue to surge in the post-pandemic era. To use an appropriately Covid-related phrase, it’s the new normal.
Industry insiders have said as much in interviews and panel discussions. Amit Phadnis, Chief Digital Officer at GE Healthcare, recently told the tech journal Protocol that he’s heard “hospital CEOs remark that they’ve made more progress on digitization than they ever thought they would in the next five or seven years.”
Let’s take a look at some of the areas within healthtech which have seen significant amounts of funding, and look set to grow still further this year and beyond.
If there was one subsector within healthtech that really flourished during the age of lockdowns and super-vigilance over Covid, it was telemedicine. The skyrocketing significance of the subsector was reflected in fundraises and M&A activity involving telemedicine startups.
One prominent 2021 deal, for example, saw WELL Health Technologies acquire a majority interest in Wisp for $41.3 million. Wisp has carved out its telemedicine niche by offering virtual care in the realm of women’s health. Users can submit a medical form online, then speak to a licensed physician by phone or online chat, and have the right medications delivered to their door.
The company is very aware that one of the benefits of telemedicine is that it can make patients feel more comfortable dealing with sensitive medical concerns such as UTIs and birth control. The word “discreetly” is prominently emblazoned on the home page, while testimonials praise the confidentiality of the platform.
This is a reminder that, while telemedicine provided a pragmatic solution during lockdowns, it’s also brought deeper benefits that many patients and practitioners won’t want to relinquish. Discretion, such as in the case of Wisp, is one. But telemedicine can also lower the costs of healthcare provision, improve accessibility for disabled people or those living far from surgeries and hospitals, and ease some of the stress placed on clinicians. According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, it can even reduce racial disparities in the numbers of patients who receive primary care appointments.
As Dr. Pooja Aysola, a senior director of clinical operations at virtual care company Wheel said in a recent interview, “I started working in telemedicine as a temporary solution, but I ended up loving the flexibility to see patients at home and on my own schedule… I'm not alone in my sudden pivot from virtual-care skeptic to virtual-care advocate. Two in three clinicians now say treating patients in virtual only or hybrid care settings best fits their lifestyle, despite a significant lack of interest in telehealth before the pandemic.”
It stands to reason that telemedicine companies will continue to prosper, with a recent Data Bridge Market Research report estimating the European telemedicine market alone will reach over $6.3 billion by 2029.
Clinical trials platforms
The advent of Covid-19 immediately disrupted clinical trials. Data shows that the number of monthly trial starts fell by a staggering 50% between January and April 2020 to April 2020. The pandemic also shone an unforgiving light on logistical problems that had already hampered clinical trials. For example, patient outreach. As our Healthtech sector report notes, over 70% of potential clinical trial participants live more than two hours away from study centres.
The pressures of the pandemic accelerated the adoption of decentralised clinical trials (DCT). This is a more patient-centric paradigm which utilises virtual conferencing and other software to enable remote interactions and the smooth gathering and sharing of data. Dr Sunny Kumar of investment firm GSR Ventures has reported that “COVID changed the game. We initially saw 10% to 12% of trials using any meaningful decentralisation to now 60% to 70% having some element of decentralisation.”
One beneficiary of this paradigm shift has been Medable, a leading developer of DCT tools, which last year raised $78 million and $304 million in series C and D funding rounds. Medable’s platform allows researchers to house data in one location, obtain all-important patient consent electronically, and monitor trial participants remotely.
Such technology can increase and strengthen patient engagement, lower dropout rates and streamline the whole trial process. According to a report published in 2021, the global virtual clinical trials market is expected to carry on growing and hit around $11.5 billion by 2028.
Medical imaging and AI diagnostics
One of the most crucial concerns within healthcare is providing a swift diagnosis for patients.
Even before the pandemic, the pressures on hospitals and labs all over the world were immense, and bottlenecks continue to bedevil clinicians. Speaking recently about the problem, Beenish Zia – Intel’s chief architect of medical imaging – recounted that “in certain hospitals in New York, we have heard that the radiologists get more than 1,400 scans per day… the huge imbalance between the number of cases requiring diagnosis and the medical staff available to provide the diagnosis is not good.”
AI is now increasingly being used to interpret scans and other images, thereby slashing diagnosis times. As detailed in Hampleton’s healthtech report, investment in AI and medical diagnostics software firms soared from under $300 million in 2017 to $700 million in 2021.
One such firm is PathAI, which provides AI-powered pathology tools to identify disease biomarkers and predict responses to treatments. Its innovative use of machine learning has led to marked investor interest, with $165 million in series C funding coming its way in 2021. The year before, in the thick of the pandemic, Gleamer – a developer of AI tools for assessing x-rays – garnered $8.2 million in its series A round.
We can expect big things going forwards, with new research estimating the AI medical imaging market growing to well over $1.5 billion by 2028.