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Data drives decentralisation in Nordic healthcare

Nordic tech startups are applying their skills to solving some of the challenges for the region’s healthcare sector

It seems odd that digital tools in the healthcare sector are less advanced than in finance, marketing, or even leisure pursuits such as gaming. The reason is the difficulty in finding a direct route to monetisation for digitisation in healthcare.

It’s not an isolated issue, either. Across physical, mental and even veterinary health, the notion of disrupting institutionalised care through digital innovation is still not widely accepted. But there are companies out there looking to break this mould, with each of the abovementioned strands being taken on by technology startups in the Nordic countries.

Each has entered the healthcare space not just as a commercial venture, but to remedy situations that they have been influenced by personally. Vedrana Högqvist Tabor’s company, Boost Thyroid, is a prime example, offering advice, solutions and interactive tools for people suffering – like she did – from Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disease that damages the thyroid gland.

“Tech tools such as ours in digital health are still underused,” said Tabor. “Health comes with a lot of additional security, privacy and ethical concerns, which makes it hard to move forward at the same speed as some other digital branches. 

“However, as a researcher with Hashimoto’s myself, I saw great potential in how data could speed up traditional research and provide much-needed answers faster. This, in turn, can keep us healthier and turn reactive disease management into preventive disease management.”

Data is a key word, said Tabor, and more and more of it is being collected via digital tools. “You get hard numbers from data – downloads, retention and engagement, as well as success stories,” she said. “They might be testimonials of a patient or, after a longer period of time, proof of benefit to studies in real time.

“At present, I feel [tech tools] are not looked at enough, as they do not always have a clear monetisation path.”

But times are changing, gradually at least, as was evidenced by the World Health Organization’s May 2018 resolution calling on governments to recognise the importance of digital solutions for health, incorporating the role of outside facilitators in complementing the efforts of health services.

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Startups have been given the chance to be pioneers in this respect. It doesn’t just revolve around human care, either, as was illustrated by Swedish innovator FirstVet, a company set up in 2016 to become a natural first port of call for pet owners seeking veterinary care.

FirstVet’s digital clinic offers video consultations 24 hours a day, all year round, to fill in the gaps in efficiency and immediacy left by traditional veterinary services.

“Telemedicine has proved to be increasingly integral to human healthcare, and our animal friends should benefit too,” said FirstVet co-founder David Prien.

Just like most healthtech operators, FirstVet is there to complement and enrich existing health institutions, not to replace them, said Prien.

“Because of the complexity of the healthcare industry, finding the best way to apply new technologies that fit into existing care frameworks successfully will not always be a quick process,” he added. “However, digital startups aid the industry by testing new technologies in fast, iterative ways.

“For instance, video call technology has been in place for a number of years, but companies like us are only now finding the best applications for this technology in both animal and human health.

“The biggest opportunities in the future will be in applying new data collection, such as wearables, and data processing applications, such as machine learning and AI [artificial intelligence].”

Improve levels of care

For physical health and even veterinary health, there has long been awareness of the need to improve levels of care. For mental health, the parameters are a little different, however, with the need to intervene effectively and quickly being acknowledged only relatively recently.

Oslo-based startup No Isolation has been quick to try to help the situation by setting out on a mission to reduce loneliness and involuntary social isolation by developing communication tools to help the people affected.

“I think the fact that technology is so imbedded into our day-to-day life has meant that it is our first port of call for a number of health-related issues and concerns,” said No Isolation’s co-founder, Karen Dolva. “Mental health has definitely been an area to which technology has been applied, and in some cases with great success via helpline tools and pre-care interactions.

“However, when it comes to loneliness and isolation – an aspect of mental health that is rarely thought about until someone is already experiencing its negative effects – we are looking at an area that has been largely neglected.”

In theory, tech tools are available for such uses, but many are not tailored to specific strands of mental health.

Picked up the slack

As has been the case in many new areas of digital startup infiltration, the Nordics have picked up the slack, and Dolva is proud to be part of an ecosystem that finds niches for applications that existing institutions are often too huge to venture into.

“In the Nordic region, a number of circumstances have combined to create a good environment for startups dedicated to solving societal issues,” said Dolva. “Our needs, such as healthcare and education, are covered, and we have a strong social democracy that has moulded many entrepreneurs to think about the bigger picture.”

Much of this progress is due to a strong scientific culture in the Nordic region too, said Boost Thyroid’s Tabor. “Openness to tech and new solutions is one of the hallmarks of the Nordic ecosystem, as is deeper collaboration between tech-driven health startups such as ourselves,” she said.

“As a result, shared startup resources and knowledge will allow us to develop faster. Each patient will be provided with connected, in-depth solutions for each step of their health journey to form a more comprehensive overview of their overall condition, and doctors will ultimately benefit from a universal type of patient symptom report.”

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