Medtech sales reps often are an essential presence during surgeries. But worries about the spread of the coronavirus and the availability of personal protective equipment have pushed most reps out of the operating rooms, leaving surgeons without a resource to which they’ve grown accustomed.
Technology startups are stepping forward to reunite surgeons and sales reps virtually while medical device companies seek solutions through collaboration or acquisition. We interviewed several principals in recent episodes of our DeviceTalks Weekly podcast.
Chris Landon, SVP and business leader of image-guided therapies at Philips, says the adoption of new technologies is going to “change the way that we interact with physicians for the better. Philips is completely committed to telehealth.”
The commitment to finding a permanent solution led Philips in July to acquire Montreal-based company Reacts, which had supplied technology for Philips’ Lumify point-of-care ultrasound solution. The Reacts tech allows for the remote sharing of the ultrasound stream used during a procedure.
“We’ve created our own virtual presence in the cath lab,” Landon said, adding that the stream could connect physicians and reps over long distances. “We certainly see a new type of sales rep-physician interface happening.”
Dr. Neil Moat, chief medical officer and divisional vice president of Abbott’s structural heart business, told us he sees a similar transition. Abbott is working with outside companies to provide telemedicine connections for its sales reps. “We’re intimately involved in looking at remote technologies or virtual technologies for training and for supporting procedures,” he said. Moat declined to identify the companies.
Smith+Nephew recently announced it would be working with Avail Medsystems, a start-up that has secured $100 million from a venture investor to build out a telemedicine network. Skip Kiil, president of orthopedics, said Smith+Nephew is “really excited” about the potential, though he didn’t want to share details. “I would say hang tight,” he said when asked about working with Avail. “We won’t get out ahead of ourselves. We want to crawl before we walk and learn to run. Then, we’ll bring something really meaningful.”
Avail Medystems and ExplOrer Surgical are two of the higher-profile startups in the space, taking very different approaches to the problem.
When Avail MedSystems CEO Daniel Hawkins joined the company in 2017, he saw a crack forming in the foundation of medical device sales. Hawkins, who previously had been CEO of Shockwave Medical, said the rise of surgical sites including ambulatory surgery centers has created more demand than the existing medical sales forces can handle.
Hawkins said he saw Avail’s technology approach as a way to help medical device sales teams reach more surgeons with less travel and logistics. Avail’s procedural telemedicine “enables somebody remotely to have all of the capabilities they would have in being in the procedure room and then many new ones, including abilities to freeze frames, and an ability to draw on screens and the like, and that, we think, creates a very rich experience and opportunity to convey medical techniques.”
Avail’s solution includes a console consisting of a camera, a screen and a two-way audio system that allows for real-time collaboration. Avail is providing the equipment for free to hospitals and will charge medical device companies for access to the telemedicine network.
ExplOrer Surgical initially focused on bringing efficiencies to the operating room. CEO and co-founder Jennifer Fried was driven to start the company after consulting with co-founder and CMO Dr. Alex Langerman. At the time, Langerman directed the Operative Performance Research Institute at the University of Chicago, which studied OR efficiencies. Fried said she was shocked when the surgeon told her that half the time, he didn’t have the OR set up as he needed before surgery. ExplOrer developed the cloud-based platform to allow for better OR management, including remote connections.
The remote capability became essential when COVID-19 hit, convincing the start-up to accelerate the introduction of features that allowed sales reps to communicate with surgeons inside the operating room. Unlike Avail, ExplOrer is deploying a “mobile-first” solution that doesn’t require equipment to be installed in the room.
“We wanted our tool to be available right away so if a rep said, `I can’t get in the room but I’m here in the hospital right now,’ We wanted the rep to be able to text the rep (to) say, `Just download this app and I’m going to be there in a HIPPA-compliant way in two-minutes.’”
Even if concerns over spreading the virus abate, medical device companies will have little incentive to commit to the expense of travel and face-to-face time if the burgeoning infrastructure of telemedicine tools deliver on the promises offered during recent interviews broadcast on the DeviceTalks Weekly podcast.
“I don’t think healthcare will ever quite go back to the way it was before remote [technology],” Abbott’s Moat told us. “Things will never go completely back to the way they were before.”