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Hot topics and hope at Europe’s largest health innovation conference

The US’s hottest healthtech event, HLTH, arrived in Europe last month, giving start-ups, healthcare providers and global brands the chance to showcase cutting-edge innovations and explore where the industry is headed next. Here’s what we learned.

It’s hard to believe two weeks have already passed since we bid ‘vaarwel’ to Amsterdam after three action-packed, inspiring days at HLTH Europe. 

Our mission? Soak up all the insight and ideas the event had to offer and understand the hot-button issues and opportunities facing the healthtech industry today. Here are the five key takeaways that stuck with us long after the stroopwafels had run out.

1. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down

As individuals, we’ve never had more access to information about healthy behaviours. And yet we don’t always make healthy choices. 

As Sam Fromson of YuLife explained during a panel discussion about employee wellbeing, “Intellectually knowing something is good for you is very different to deciding to do something about it.” 

There are all sorts of behavioural barriers preventing change – from the challenge of breaking existing habits to our tendency towards favouring immediate rewards over long-term ones.

Add to that the sheer volume (and popularity) of health misinformation on social media, and it’s clear that we can’t assume information alone is enough to drive healthier behaviours.

Gamification is one solution. Coupling wearables with elements such as competitions, rewards, challenges and progress tracking makes the sometimes mundane action of physical activity fun and engaging. However for gamification to work effectively and keep people engaged in healthy habits, rewards and incentives need to be meaningful to them. 

And in the social media space, we heard from Dr. Disney, a pediatrician and content creator, who called for clinicians to learn how to engage audiences on platforms like TikTok, using the power of entertainment to get valuable (and accurate) information across. 

These insights were good reminders that, even for a serious subject like health, a little fun can go a long way.

2. A deluge of personal health data will fuel health questions

Roughly a third of people in the UK and US currently use a wearable device like a smartwatch or a fitness band, giving them a steady stream of data on their own personal health.

At a panel discussion on wearables, we heard predictions that devices will soon go beyond step counting and heart rate monitoring to measuring things like your blood pressure and glucose levels. One speaker even speculated that we could start to gather data through other sensors in our home – for example a toilet that can analyse your urine sample (ToiletTech?) – or even through implantable devices.

But as we gather even more data on our own health, we need more help to make sense of it: Do I have the health literacy required to interpret my own heart rate data? At what point should I be concerned about my health data enough to visit my GP? 

The more data we can access, the more questions we have – and the greater the risk we turn to the unreliable ‘Dr. Google’ for answers. 

Dr Anne Lepetit, Chief Medical Officer of Bupa, noted that this is where telehealth and remote care can play a crucial role, by giving people quick access to expert advice when they see something unusual in their baseline data. 

3.  AI could be a gamechanger for global health equity

We weren’t surprised to see dozens of AI-driven companies setting up shop on the expo floor. From streamlining the compliance process for medical devices, to predicting post-operative infections, AI is powering a wave of innovation across the healthcare industry.

In her keynote address, Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Chief Health Officer of Google, compared AI to penicillin, in terms of its potential to transform the health of humanity.

Penicillin was revolutionary when infectious disease was one of the main causes of death. It transformed our ability to treat these infections and even made certain diseases a thing of the past. She argued that AI’s ability to deal with and make sense of complex data will be similarly revolutionary for our health, giving us powerful new tools to prevent, diagnose and treat health issues.

But she was careful to point out that the most powerful AI innovations will not replace humans, but rather complement human decision-making. This means they could help to expand access and fill gaps in places where human healthcare workers are in short supply and people would not otherwise receive care.

4. Tackling health taboos offers an opportunity for innovation

At more than one session we were reminded that stigma remains one of the biggest barriers to accessing healthcare. 

The demand on mental health services has never been higher, yet there is still a huge gap between those that are affected by mental health issues and those that access services. People in the LGBTQ+ community still face discrimination. Despite being highly treatable, HIV stigma is still a huge issue and negative attitudes to and beliefs about people living with HIV persist. And we still rarely talk about menstrual health, even though roughly half our population will have a period in their lifetime. 

The fear and shame that accompanies these isssues stop people from seeking professional help when they need it. 

But it was interesting to learn that some investors see these persistent stigmas as an untapped opportunity. One panellist talked about his venture capital firm’s focus on ‘Taboo Tech’: solutions to unmet needs for which patients will go online to seek help, but won’t speak to their doctor. 

This presents a huge opportunity for digital healthcare services, which enable these underserved populations to stay anonymous while accessing the support or treatment they need. 

The use of language plays a role here as well. We heard from another speaker about an experiment where people were offered mental health support through their employer. Some were offered a wellbeing coach, while others were offered mental health therapy. Uptake of support was significantly higher when it was framed as a ‘coach’, suggesting that one way to sidestep stigma is to frame actions in a positive, proactive light.

5. A strong brand story is the best way to fight ‘vendor fatigue’

With many start-ups and scale-ups attending the event, it’s no wonder there was a full house for a panel talk offering advice from top investors.

Rana Lonnen, who heads up pharma giant Novartis’ investment arm, warned of ‘vendor fatigue’ – where vendors see similar proposals from companies over and over again and they all blur together. She emphasised the importance of quickly getting to what makes your solution different and how you are solving an unmet need. This is critical to making sure your solution comes across as a ‘killer app’ rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ – in her words, “Once it is used by pharma, they can’t live without it.”

Venture capitalist, Lucanus Polagnoli had surprising advice for founders. He explained that while healthtech companies often ‘pitch the mission’ – the impact they want to make on patients’ lives – healthtech investors are generally already bought into this mission, which is why they’re focused on the health space to begin with. He explained that when he’s listening to a pitch, he’s more interested in the mechanics and engine driving the company, and advised founders to make this a central focus of their story.

 

Innovative technology + effective communication = hope

We left the conference feeling that a bright future lies ahead for healthtech in Europe. From scrappy start-ups to global giants, companies are advancing countless, innovative new ways to support our struggling healthcare systems and change patients’ lives for the better. However, we were also reminded time and time again of the critical role that communications and marketing play in unlocking the potential of this technology, so that buyers, healthcare professionals and patients understand it, adopt it and make it a part of their everyday lives.

Does your healthtech company need help to bring its brand story to life? Whether you are using AI to conquer complex data, using digital solutions to tackle health taboos, or anything in between, the team at Rationale is here to help. Get in touch at hello@wearerationale.com