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Matching entrepreneurs with experts to create relevant digital health solutions

In early 2023, Consulto benefited from Biopôle’s six-month Vanguard Accelerator programme, which helps early-stage digital health start-ups with their business strategy. After the programme was complete, we spoke with Vanguard expert Thomas Hügle, Professor and Head of Rheumatology at Lausanne University Hospital(CHUV), and Baher Higazy, Co-Founder of Consulto, which is developing a virtual clinic for team-base care, about how developments linked to digital transformation respond to pressing needs in healthcare, and how the Vanguard accelerator affected their work.

Since the pandemic the use of telemedicine has increased, but from a practitioner point of view is there a need for virtual clinics?

According to Thomas Hügle, virtual clinics might be a game-changer when it comes to a multi-disciplinary approach in the patient journey. Providing care to outpatients who require consultations with different clinicians in different locations can pose a challenge. Thomas has extensive experience in organising interdisciplinary cooperation. ‘In everyday clinical practice, we still communicate insufficiently, by telephone or email,’ he explains. ‘In many cases, we simply do not know what each other’s decisions are.’

He points out that many studies have proven that chronic diseases such as arthritis or inflammatory bowel diseases require ‘efficient interdisciplinary cooperation’. Yet, while joint consultations or interdisciplinary case discussions are the gold standard, he highlights that ‘in clinical practice, this is very rarely feasible and hardly scalable.’

Thus, the virtual team-based care proposed by Consulto ‘fell on open ears,’ says Thomas. Consulto’s Co-Founder Baher Higazy is equally positive: ‘Thomas helped us understand the healthcare-provider perspective and confirmed that we were dealing with a real and pressing issue in healthcare, not just a minor inconvenience.’

Is the market ready for solutions of this kind?

Although Thomas believes the question has yet to be answered, the timing is good. ‘The development of electronic medical records speaks in favour of this’, although in practice, deploying the system can prove to be complex.

‘Sometimes technical or digital innovations are ahead of their time,’ says Thomas. That means the benefits and adaptability of some solutions may not yet be clear, making them more difficult to integrate. However, ‘If doctors, patients and the administration benefit from a solution and it can be easily integrated into the clinical workflow, the signs are very good.’ In other words, start-ups and innovators need to understand where benefits can be felt and how solutions can be meaningfully adapted to current needs and processes. Only then will they ensure success for their product or solution and fulfil their purpose as a company.

According to Baher, the Vanguard programme helped the team to understand the needs of their potential market, providing ‘insights into the user experience from the standpoint of healthcare providers’. An enthusiasm for virtual user-oriented solutions, such as tele-consultation, is also evident from patients, with increased adoption following the pandemic. In this context, the comprehensive solution developed by Consulto ‘could play a key role’.

In everyday clinical practice, we still communicate insufficiently (…) In many cases, we simply do not know what each other’s decisions are.

Thomas Hügle, Professor and Head of Rheumatology at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV)

What other improvements can virtual clinic solutions provide?

While digital clinical pathway solutions are essential for better quality of treatment and communication between clinicians, innovations can also provide increased efficiency in terms of cost and administrative services. For instance, Thomas believes that the integrated automatic billing for medical services in Consulto’s solution ‘creates a win-win-win situation for patients, doctors and administration’.

Yet, during the Vanguard Accelerator programme Consulto identified that the billing advantage can be viewed differently depending on the professionals concerned: ‘Larger health providers resonate more with the subscription model, while independent providers prefer the platform provider model, where we centralise administrative tasks and take a percentage of the service provision.’

How was the collaboration between the Vanguard experts and the start-up important when developing this innovation?

To identify the suitability of Consulto’s solution in the current healthcare context, the start-up worked with Vanguard experts, including Thomas and Rodolphe Eurin, CEO at Hôpital de La Tour. They provided invaluable insights into clinical use cases and needs. Baher explains: ‘We learned where we could introduce Consulto to create greater value for patients and care teams, and how these needs vary between specialties.’ That understanding has been integral in shaping Consulto’s service so it can cater to clinical needs across various stages of patient care.

With knowledge gleaned from Thomas, Rodolphe and others, Consulto has understood the ‘different user personas and the types of information they might share for various disease profiles.’ Further comments and creative ideas have also influenced dashboard design and business model development, for instance.

Overall, the pressing need Thomas identified for ‘digital clinical pathways combined with optimised communication among doctors’ supported Consulto’s vision and provided a clear focus for further developing its solution. The start-up’s work with Rodolphe also gave Consulto validation: ‘He confirmed that we are on the right track as a start-up aiming to improve patient outcomes and experiences by putting the patient first and adapting the system’.

Participation in the programme is also mutually beneficial, as Vanguard experts tend to consult on their main fields of work. For Thomas, that field is digital solutions as applied to rheumatological or musculoskeletal diseases or pain. ‘When you help develop new digital developments, you automatically learn,’ he explains. ‘It’s fun to be at the forefront of digital transformation.’

What are the next steps?

For Consulto the next step is MVP (minimum viable product) testing and fundraising. Through the Vanguard Accelerator, Consulto gained access not only to the knowledge of experts such as Thomas, but also their ecosystems. That offered a chance to test and implement ideas ahead of MVP launch, something that enables start-ups to draw investors’ attention to a product or solution that is more relevant to their field. Thus, Consulto’s fundraising efforts can now focus on supporting its first virtual clinic on chronic pain management, developed in collaboration with partners EPFL, Groupe Mutuel, the CHUV and Hôpital de La Tour.

If you are interested in applying for the Vanguard Accelerator, the next deadline for applications is 25 October 2023. For more information and to access the application form, click here.

Prof. Thomas Hügle and Baher Higazy
Prof. Thomas Hügle is Head of Rheumatology at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and is on the panel of experts for Biopôle’s Vanguard Accelerator programme, which helps digital health start-ups to grow their business. He runs a research programme for digital rheumatology where he and his team develop machine learning algorithms for disease prediction, as well as digital therapeutics and biomarkers for rheumatic diseases.

Baher Higazy has co-founded Consulto with his twin brothers Basem. The early-stage start-up is building the world-first virtual clinic specialized in team-based ambulatory care.

Vanguard Accelerator

The Vanguard Accelerator is a free six-month programme, run by Biopôle SA and its partners, to help promising digital health-oriented projects supercharge their innovation and take their business strategy to the next level.

This immersive programme gives early-stage start-ups the opportunity to work with diverse and experienced digital health experts, who can advise on business plans and strategies. They include clinicians, nurses and pharmacists, alongside regulators, investors and IT specialists, all ready to offer their expertise. Start-ups selected for the accelerator programme benefit from exclusive real-world insights for business hypothesis testing and networking support to bring their digital health innovation to life.

Learn more


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