From ordering a taxi to having your favourite meal delivered direct to your door, consumers have come to expect slick service in every aspect of their lives. Every aspect, that is, except healthcare.
Whether it is waiting two weeks for a doctor’s appointment or struggling to organise a repeat prescription, the healthcare experience in 2017 can feel like stepping back in time.
That is until now. As Marketing Week’s 100 Disruptive Brands 2017 list shows, health is a fertile ground for innovation. Sensing the need among consumers to break down the barriers in healthcare and make the experience customer-centric, a new set of disruptors have emerged with a mission to help people take control of their health.
Brands such as Babylon, which uses chatbots to give patients an almost instant diagnosis, and Echo, which cuts down waiting time for repeat prescriptions by delivering to your door, are shaking up healthcare and shifting the power back to consumers.
Another business is Thriva, which offers individuals a finger-prick blood test kit they can administer at home to check their health. Once complete, the blood test is sent for analysis to one of Thriva’s NHS-certified labs. The results are then reviewed by a qualified GP, who creates a bespoke report for the patient to view via an online dashboard.
Consumers can subscribe to be tested every three months or opt for a one-off test analysing their thyroid or liver function, vitamin D and B12 levels, cholesterol or testosterone.
Hamish Grierson, co-founder and CEO of Thriva – one of Marketing Week’s 100 Disruptive Brands for 2017, alongside Babylon and Echo – explains that the founding principle behind it is a desire to stop people living in ignorance about what is going on inside their bodies. He argues that while the NHS is an amazing “sick care system”, it is “incapable” of delivering proactive, preventative medicine.
Timing also played a big part in the birth of Thriva in early 2016. Grierson noticed consumers starting to abandon the “outdated perspective” that their internal health has to stay invisible.
“We have got to a sufficiently evolved point of time where people are very much engaged with their health. If you look at the wearable trend, people are increasingly interested in what’s really going on with their bodies,” says Grierson.
“So it’s all about giving people control and empowering them, ultimately to ensure they make good on the truism that prevention is better than cure.”
Patients as consumers
Thriva’s customer-centric design is intended to reflect the apps and services consumers interact with on a daily basis, offering a frictionless service that can keep pace with daily life in 2017.
“Part of the reason that people have become so expecting of highly friction-free, customer-centric product experiences is because they are so busy and demand instant gratification,” says Grierson.
“When you think about any engagement, when it comes to health for the most part it is the antithesis of that. One of the goals for our company is to hold on to the very highest accessibility and friction-free standards you have come to expect from any product developed today.”
For a service to be relatable, especially in a sector as complex as healthcare, a brand cannot assume everyone has a degree in biomedical sciences, says Grierson, who believes being hyper-intuitive is the only way forward.
“It’s absolutely essential that every corner of the product experience, the way results are delivered and what actions people need to take are rooted in customer-centricity. You have to be super simple, but also recognise that people aren’t stupid. They are hungry to understand this stuff, so it’s about making it accessible and intuitive,” he adds.
The same customer-centric approach is in place at Echo. Designed to help consumers take control of their NHS repeat prescriptions, the free app allows users to scan the barcode of their medication and enter the name of their GP, after which Echo arranges to send the prescription to their door free of charge, taking a percentage of the prescription fee while boosting the pharmacy’s volume of orders.
Co-founder Stephen Bourke describes Echo as adopting a “Deliveroo-style” model, working with 10 pharmacies across London and the South East to dispense medication. Key to making the service work is the recognition that people who take repeat prescriptions do not necessarily identify as patients and therefore healthcare businesses should recognise them as consumers first and foremost.
“The whole notion of being a patient is quite depressing, so we wanted to build something that was very consumer-orientated, something akin to the best apps out there, but related to healthcare,” explains Bourke
Echo has taken inspiration from healthcare pioneers that really understand “why they exist”, such as online booking service Zesty, as well as the way behavioural psychology is applied by companies in the gaming sector like King, the developer of Candy Crush. These insights have been applied to every aspect of the service, even the packaging in which the prescriptions are delivered.
“If you give people something beautifully designed, our belief is people respond to that in a different way, they treat it differently and value it,” claims Bourke.
“For our packaging we use really nice crepe paper and stickers. We try to package the medication as you would get a delivery from Net-A-Porter. We try to have an aspect of surprise and delight, because we want [the user] to value the medication they’re getting. Our belief is if you value it, you will treat it differently and actually take it.”
A deep understanding of what consumers want is central to the service at Babylon, according to CMO Richard Guest, who took lessons from his former career as commercial director at Virgin Media into the startup environment.
Launched in 2014, Babylon aims to connect patients to doctors in a fast and seamless way through a range of services including a health advice chatbot, GP video chat function, prescription delivery service and health tracker. The idea is to cater for patients in a 24/7 on-demand world where the traditional doctor-patient relationship no longer works.
Combining mobile tech with artificial intelligence (AI), the chatbot invites users to type in their symptoms and Babylon’s algorithm then interprets their colloquial language to rule in or out conditions in the fewest possible steps.
To drive this exploration of AI technology, Babylon has grown its team from 40 people at the start of 2016 to 150 people today and is currently available in the UK and Rwanda. Seventy per cent of employees in both locations are data scientists and engineers, who work alongside doctors to help build the AI.
Utilising sophisticated technology to give consumers back control over their health is having a big impact, says Guest.
“As soon as you put the control back in people’s hands it’s fantastic. Our average waiting time for an appointment is 40 minutes and you just don’t get that [with the traditional service]. The consumer adoption has been enormous. We have had over a million downloads so far and 800,000 registrations. When we launched in Rwanda, 10% of the population registered in the first six months,” he adds.
The service is also freely available to 220,000 employees at a variety of companies including Bupa, Aviva, Sky and Talk Talk, who have signed up their teams to receive free GP video consultations, saving time that would otherwise have been lost visiting a doctor.
The overriding aim of the company is to make life easier for consumers by using technology centred on human engagement, Guest explains.
“There’s the unlimited power of technology to help us get there, but what we can’t lose is the human face and at the end of the day people do want to interact with humans. So we need to make the technology help that interaction, make it slicker and faster so you can spend more time doing what you want to do rather than filling in forms.”
Tech with a human touch
The desire to humanise the experience for patients and carers came from a highly personal place for Devika Wood, co-founder and chief medical officer at social care startup Vida.
An informal carer from the age of 10, Wood watched her grandmother Sita’s struggle with dementia and epilepsy become compounded by sub-standard treatment from social care services, resulting in Sita being visited by more than 150 carers in 12 years.
“That kind of experience stays with you forever,” says Wood, who explains how her grandmother’s harrowing experience gave her an overwhelming desire to improve the social care system from the inside out.
Having worked as a cancer research scientist and health consultant, Wood met her Vida co-founder Naushard Jabir at investment firm Hambro Perks in February 2016 and within two weeks the pair had incorporated the company. Vida began trading as a standard care provider, experimenting with off-the-shelf technologies in order to experience all the pain points before building its own.
Wood hired a tech team to develop a bespoke back-end system, which matches patients with carers who meet their needs for everything from respite care to palliative care. By applying its own matching algorithm Vida has cut the time it takes to match carers and patients from two to three hours – the industry standard – to two minutes.
Speed is of the essence as far as Wood is concerned. “We’re beyond a crisis point in the healthcare system and I think instead of people wanting to take control of their health, it’s like we now need to come up with new solutions for people to take care and control of their health,” she explains.
“With community care and social care, if you put in 1% improvement it would have a massive effect on the NHS and primary care because you’re improving that person’s life in the community so they are utilising those services much less frequently.”
Over the next couple of years Vida plans to franchise out its technology to more than 8,500 agencies across the UK in order to improve the standard of care being delivered.
The company has raised £1.6m in investment since launching in 2016, growing its team to 23 people across offices in London and Brighton. The company has also embarked on reshaping the way carers are trained by implementing three-month refresher courses that enable career progression.
With regard to marketing the Vida service, Wood has learnt to forget the fads and focus on simplicity in order to build a trustworthy brand.
“Caring is a very emotional thing and it’s all about building up a brand that people can relate to and put trust in,” she explains.
“So instead of marketing the product and service, it was about building a story behind our brand, who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing in order to get people to trust in us and that in itself enables scalability.”
Working hard to make a change
An ability to recognise the problem at hand and then have the confidence to disrupt the status quo characterises disruptors in the healthcare sector.
Thriva’s Grierson believes that healthcare startups in particular have had the foresight to realise that just because institutions have been operating for a long time does not mean people enjoy the service or that it cannot be significantly improved. However, making a change means embracing hard work.
“If you look at some of the sectors that are being disrupted right now, fintech in particular, it is pretty damn difficult. It’s not just like building another widget,” Grierson acknowledges. “The reality is that if you’re prepared to take on something challenging, it’s immensely rewarding and you can solve real problems.”
For Echo’s Bourke, it is important for startups to be their own harshest critic regarding the product, service and design. To know exactly how to change the service it is also crucial to truly understand the problem you are trying to solve.
“The guiding principle of our business is whenever we have to make a decision we come back to the point: what do we want to do in order for this to be awesome? You have to make thousands of decisions a week as a startup, so being able to know the problem intimately has been a huge benefit for us,” Bourke adds.
Approaching healthcare in the same way as building an on-demand app or crafting a bespoke customer journey is enabling these startups to use emerging technology to deliver seamless experiences that give consumers the control back over their health.