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Sensing the future of healthcare

Digital health executive Phil Golz EMBA2012 has seen the future of US medical care – and it will mean fewer appointments

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How to thrive 

“Take advantage of spending so much time at home with your family – set aside some time to spend with them every day. You might not have this chance again. Keep active: eight hours a day of Zoom calls is not good for the back or belly.”

When the coronavirus pandemic started to rearrange the world of business, Phil Golz EMBA2012 found himself in a strange position.

US-based Spire Health, where Golz heads up commercial activities, makes a wearable sensor that continuously monitors respiration, pulse rate and activity and automatically notifies the care team if significant changes in patient health are detected. Since Covid-19 is a respiratory illness, the device seems especially relevant right now.

Golz says the company has seen “unprecedented demand” which has “multiplied its revenue considerably” in the past few months. But Spire has also faced challenges in creating awareness amongst the healthcare provider community whose patients could benefit the most.

“Even though we live in a technology-laden world, a lot of the sales and business-development process is still very dependent on human relationships,” Golz explains. “Our ability to reach our customers, pulmonologists primarily, has been significantly diminished during the pandemic.”

The sensors differ from the many other wearables on the market in their unobtrusiveness. The devices are small, slim and attach to the inside of clothing; instead of a clunky band on your wrist, you just put your underwear on as normal and go about your day.

The design is essential to the sensors’ effectiveness. Usually, remote monitoring requires patients to change their behaviour to accommodate how the monitoring is done – but getting people to adjust their routines can be very difficult. Spire’s sensors don’t require any change in behaviour, and with a battery that lasts over a year and a half, they don’t even need to be charged.

“A bracelet or a watch or a strap or anything like that, someone may wear it for a while, but not long term,” Golz says. “So we were really solving the problem of getting long-term data sets for providers and long-term engagement from patients.”

Best of all, the system is reimbursed by Medicare, the largest payer in the US. “So, when we go and sell to doctors or hospitals, we’re encouraging them to adopt a technology which is already reimbursed. It doesn’t really cost them anything. Obviously, the main goal here is improving patient health and outcomes, but the sensor does actually improve hospital finances as well.”

But good technology still has to find its way to the people who need it. Figuring out what that process looked like in the pandemic’s early days – when big hospitals were full, doctors were beyond busy and many smaller healthcare practices were shut – was one of Spire’s major hurdles.

“Selling into healthcare organisations is a relatively long sales cycle,” Golz says. “It’s not like selling a car. It takes a lot of time. You need to build up trust.” How does a company selling healthcare technology build trust with a provider that may buy it? “Quite often it is done with at least one face-to-face meeting. I’ve never closed a deal in healthcare where I’ve never met the person face-to-face. It doesn’t really happen.” Of course, in-person meetings have been practically impossible during the coronavirus outbreak.

Spire dealt with the new environment by doubling down on existing clients and trying creative ways to find new ones. This approach had some success: Spire’s core metric is the number of patients who use its monitoring service, and Golz says the company’s weekly recruitment number grew by about 2,000% in one month. At the same time, he knew the company needed a longer-term plan, and it wasn’t clear yet what that would be.

Then, about six weeks into the pandemic, something interesting happened. Smaller healthcare practices started reopening, but many of them weren’t able to see patients, so they were looking for ways to help people remotely. The doctors who had always had too much to do suddenly had a little time to think about the future. And what the future seemed to be bringing was telehealth.

Taking healthcare into the future

“If you know anything about healthcare in the US, it’s a very, very slow-moving beast,” Golz says. “This industry is quite far behind many industries out there that have embraced digital technologies.” 

Telehealth in the US has been slow to adopt, in part due to the careful oversight of it by the Food and Drug Administration, and Medicare. Before the pandemic, Golz explains, “if a doctor wanted to get paid for a telehealth visit, there was only a certain set of criteria under which Medicare would reimburse for that. And that effectively didn’t encourage a lot of people to adopt it.”

Now, a lot of those restrictions have been relaxed to help doctors care for patients remotely. It seems to be working. “The landscape has shifted,” Golz says. “Doctors are more aware of these technologies because they’ve been forced to use them… and patients themselves have experienced a different way of receiving care.”

That’s good news for telehealth in the US, and potentially for Spire, too. “I think there will be a very long-term impact,” Golz continues. “Doctors and our customers will have a greater understanding and appreciation of how valuable it is to capture physiological data from patients, in a world where you can’t see them as frequently as you did in the past. We are seeing that having high-quality, long-term data can help doctors make informed decisions about a patient’s care, even when the patient can’t get into the doctor’s office.”

Golz has stayed motivated through the pandemic by focusing on the patients that Spire is serving. “Two of the groups that are most affected by this are the elderly and those with chronic diseases, and those are the people that use our sensors.”

Thousands of patients use Spire’s technology; Golz hopes the company is “providing a valuable peace-of-mind service for them, and a valuable service that prevents them from getting really sick.”

Transition

Earlier in his career, Golz held several positions at GlaxoSmithKline, including Global Head of Innovation. He then entered the world of startups, joining a healthcare company in London and helping to increase its revenue threefold.

A few years later, after taking the startup to the US, he moved to Spire Health, then a consumer company, and helped it transition to selling exclusively to B2B medical markets. He’s excited to see how the young company will keep growing, especially as it partners with healthcare providers to respond to the crisis.

His London Business School Executive MBA has served him well throughout. He says, “I don’t think I would have been able to get the visas and the top-level position in a Series A startup without the credentials from LBS. From a more operational perspective, even now I’m doing a lot of work on pricing and go-to-market strategy.

“Funnily enough, I was dipping into some of the materials from the data-analysis module of the MBA programme, looking at multi-variable regression models to understand the cost drivers of our business.

“Without that understanding, I would not be able to do this job. I wouldn’t be as valuable to my company without it.”

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