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TECH MONTH Eamonn Costello

17 Feb 2021

Gareth Fleming, Director of Brightwater’s IT division is in conversation with Eamonn Costello, co-founder of patientMpower.

GF:  At Brightwater, our IT division wants to highlight the IT sector by talking with some key movers in the IT community, to show how IT impacts upon all sectors and functions of a business. We want to find out their opinions on trends, challenges that the sector is facing and what they expect from 2021. Today, I have the pleasure of talking to someone who I’ve got to know pretty well over the last twelve months, Eamonn Costello. Eamonn is the co-founder of a wonderful company patientMpower. It provides digital care solutions allowing patients and clinical teams to understand their health status without attending the hospital, obviously very useful in the current climate. The pandemic, I know has really helped to launch patientMpower to a wider global market. Eamonn, thank you for taking the time to talk today. I know that thankfully you’re very busy at the moment.

EC: Yes, thanks Gareth. Yes, things are very busy for us right now, particularly with the current Covid surge.

GF: Eamonn, if we could kick off with a brief introduction to you and your company patientMpower?

EC: Well, the company started in 2015. The original premise of the company is still the same today even though what we’re working on is a bit different. So the original premise was about shifting care away from the acute hospitals allowing patients and their clinical team to be able to deliver care at home where possible. That’s still very much kind of what we do today. Along the way, we’ve built up a lot of evidence in terms of the impact of our solutions, we’ve won various awards but 2020 changed the direction of our company a lot. 

 

GF: Let’s talk about that. What happened in 2020, Eamonn, obviously there was the pandemic but what happened to your company? How did Covid 19 affect patientMpower?

EC: So I suppose in Ireland, we were already active in the UK and the US, and in Ireland we were starting to get traction, in particular the aims of the SláinteCare, (note – This is a ten-year programme by the government to transform Ireland’s health and social care services) the reconfiguration of our healthcare, a lot of the aims are really positive. It’s about moving care much more into the community, into the home where possible, very much in keeping with our mission and what we do. We were working on those sort of areas pre-Covid and then we were all starting to see the pictures coming from Italy, we knew that Covid was getting closer to ourselves so we started really looking at our existing solution. We were working in lung disease and we had worked with a lot of the leading lung disease doctors in Ireland.

So we thought about how could our solution be reconfigured to help those hospitals meet the expected surge. We just basically adapted our solution. We had already integrated and we had supplies of pulse oximeters to measure the oxygen levels in patients. We went live in early to mid March with that and both the hospitals, clinicians and patients have found it to be remarkably useful in helping keep patients out of hospital, help discharge patients early. It’s allowed them to effectively have more capacity in their hospitals. Recently the Claire Byrne Live show came from outside the Mater hospital and they mentioned that they had 160 Covid patients half in the hospital, half at home. That at home was being managed by our platform, our services and that’s being repeated by hospitals throughout the country and just in the last two weeks we’ve gone live with general practices as well. GPs around the country are now prescribing this as well. Parallel to all of this, the other thing we’ve been very active on is the chronic disease patients and what’s happening to them. We’ve been rolling out solutions for  Cystic Fibrosis, Pulmonary Fibrosis, asthma, COPD and lung transplant. That’s replicated in the UK and the US and we’ve plans to launch to launch into European markets with that this year as well.  

GF: Given what’s happening in the hospitals in Ireland right now, I assume it’s similarly happening across the world where a lot of other illnesses are being pushed to the side while hospitals are over-run with Covid. Does that mean that your company is in an even better position for the other products that you look after because of that demand on the rest of the health sector?  Has the demand on other parts of the health sector affected the activities of patientMPower?

EC: Yes but with a major caveat. If you think of trying to sell to hospitals when they have that surge, it’s all hands- on deck in those hospitals. Trying to get the attention of a respiratory doctor to think about how they reconfigure care when they’re dealing with nothing but Covid patients who are really sick, that’s really difficult. Where we had success with that in 2020 was in between the waves, when people had a little bit of breathing space to think about how they were going to reconfigure care, how they were going to restart services for those chronic disease patients. Luckily in Ireland for patients who are managed under those solutions today, those Cystic Fibrosis patients, those Pulmonary Fibrosis patients, in Ireland, they’re having virtual conversations with their physicians. It’s not just conversations like this, the physician has objective data to assess their health. So that’s really great to see that those things we’ve been working on are delivering real value for those patients so it’s not just the Covid patients that are benefiting from our solutions at the moment.

 

GF:  If I look at your business then against other businesses that had very different challenges to patientMpower, what are the main challenges you faced in 2020?

EC: I suppose it varied a lot. In March 2020, it was how do we scale up to meet the demand. Everything from process, logistics, people, it was an incredible scale up that we had to do in a very short space of time. A lot of that in terms of people was filled with contract resources, in people or companies that we knew, or consultants that we knew that we brought in to help out. From June onwards, when the Covid wave in Ireland had calmed down, it was very much a case of how do we resource this over the longer term? We did a lot of recruitment, we looked at a lot of process flows, how do we put in place processes to sustain this in the longer term? It was really weird doing an interview and hiring people that we don’t actually get to meet. So that was a new challenge that a lot of people didn’t expect to have to face. But like everyone, you just have to do it and you adapt. Now looking into this year (2021), it’s about how do we sustain this, how do we keep that going and what kind of healthcare system, what kind of company are we going to be post-Covid? So we’re starting to think about that as well.

 

GF: Which leads nicely onto my next question. If you look at the overall strategy that patientMpower had coming into 2020, I imagine that changed completely post March. And it’s probably changed again now this year. So what do you think now in terms of 2021? What does that mean for patientMpower? What does 2021 look like for patientMpower?

EC: So I think there will be a heavy focus on the chronic disease patients. How will the health care system deliver care for them over the longer term? That will be our main focus. Covid is still consuming a lot of our resources in the short term. Hopefully that will subside in the coming weeks and months. So it will be very much how do we help hospitals and clinicians to reconfigure how they deliver care and we’ll be working on that in Ireland, the UK and the US. We’re also looking at some of the European markets as well in the coming year, in particular Germany where they have launched new federal reimbursement for digital health care.

GF: Oh really? Is that like a grant system that works over there?

EC: It’s more like (I’m not entirely sure of the exact details) but it’s more that everyone in Germany has to have health insurance, it’s federally mandated so it’s government run. The federal insurance will pay for digital health care solutions. They’ll pay for them for one year from your initial launch. At the end of that one year, you need to show evidence that there was a benefit, in terms of the health economics, the patient care, improved outcomes, whatever it may be and so it seems like a good way of doing things. We’ll be pursuing that in the German market in the next year.

GF: That’s a great project over there. That’s really interesting.

 

GF: If you look at the wider med-tech sector that you’re in, obviously the pandemic has had far reaching effects on that sector. It’s probably come right to the forefront, where as other companies in the travel and hospitality sectors have fallen by the wayside unfortunately. What do you think the trends will be in your space? What are the predicted trends for the med-tech sector in 2021?

EC: I think hopefully as the vaccine rollout gathers pace and that Covid becomes less of an issue in time, I think that there will be as in every industry, what next, how is this going to change how we do things. I think no matter what industry you’re in or what way you work that Covid is going to have a lasting impact. It’s very much going to be a look at everything in terms of how public health is resourced and how care is delivered. We feel that we’re very well positioned in what we’re trying to do, that the expert level care that is delivered in the large acute hospitals is going to be as important as it’s ever been. The trouble is, that even pre-pandemic, there were huge long waiting lists for care to be delivered. So how do we more intelligently divide up the resources and allow patients who are most in need, to be seen earlier?

The way that our platform helps, if someone is stable and their lung disease is relatively okay, that they can have a virtual consultation, they don’t need to come into the hospital to use the resources in that hospital. That’s good for the patient, it’s good for the hospital, because then those resources, they can use for other patients who do need to come in. It’s being able to understand which patients need to come in which is important as well and we help hospitals with that. Every industry and especially in healthcare, it’s going to be what are the lessons learned, how do we transform for the future and I think in the long term, we’re going to have a better health system off the back of this. I sincerely believe that and I think the public, that people really kind of appreciate the healthcare and the frontline workers. We do need to resource it effectively to have a good health service.

GF: Agreed and I think we’ve probably seen some of the failings around the recruitment process at the start of the pandemic. I can’t remember what the actual tagline was but it was the “welcome home of healthcare people to Ireland” It fell flat on its face but it seems to be improving now.

 

GF: I’m interested in you, Eamonn. It’s such a niche sector to end up in. What was your interest? What brought you here? What prompted your interest in digital healthcare?

EC: I suppose it was through a family member being in and out of the hospital that I got interested in the space. One of the co-founders was already working in healthcare so the nucleus of the idea started from then. I suppose a desire to work on something with an impact. Prior to that I was working in e-commerce and not to knock e-commerce, we all want to shop online and get our goods delivered to our door in a pandemic, but I just wanted to work on something impactful. If I’m starting out again in the morning, it would be healthcare again or climate change. I suppose that’s the other thing that people, off the back of Covid, people want a renewed sense of purpose and quality of life as well.  

GF: Yes, I definitely think so and again if you’re looking at what’s happening in the tech space right now, companies like “Let’s Get Checked” and “Wellola”, companies that offer that digital healthcheck are really hiring massively within Ireland and beginning to scale globally. It’s great to see for such an ethically centred sector.

 

GF: If we come back to patientMpower, you did a lot of hiring last year in a very short space of time. What is the culture like in patientMpower? What does the day to day look like?

EC:  I think that everyone that we hire buys into the purpose and gets the “feel good” feeling from the impact it’s having. In terms of the day to day, because we’re all now remote, previously we were all working in one room and information sharing was very easy, now we’re working in Teams. Naturally, by the nature of it, you can create silos but we’re trying to make sure it’s as flat an organisation as possible, that people can come to any other person in the company to ask a question.

We’re trying to get the overall company objectives visible across the board and I suppose, given how fast we’ve scaled, we were 8 people at the beginning of last year (2020) and now we’re 30 people, that does create challenges. 30 people is still a small company but that expansion from 8 to 30 people happened when everyone was remote and you have to adapt and think differently. That scale has also happened when people were extremely busy delivering those solutions I spoke about earlier. So in terms of the day to day and the culture, we’re still trying to be as flat an organisation as possible. We’re trying to be extremely open in terms of information sharing and also in terms of company pride, we’ve launched an ESOP (Employee Share Options) scheme to give everyone a sense of ownership as well as a sense of pride in the company.

GF:  It’s certainly one of the things I’ve noticed about the people that work for you. They really do buy into that community. And I know  the word “community” is mentioned several times on your website. I’d urge everyone to check out your website as what you do is really important. (It’s info.patientmpower.com ) You’ve certainly helped keep the numbers in hospital down. It’s a great and worthy project and product suite that you have.

 

GF: The main areas of hiring for you for this year, I assume you’re still in growth mode. How is patientMpower going to grow this year?

EC: As a proportion, it won’t be anywhere near the same numbers. It probably won’t be 100% growth. It’s still going to be across the same functional areas. We’ll be hiring in our product, our technical areas so we see loads of potential to further develop our solution. In the operations area to deliver our solutions, part of our differentiation is to deliver leading customer service and we believe we’re doing that. Just in the last couple of days, we’ve had GPs who have just come on board and they have come back to thank us on how quickly they’ve been set up and how quickly they have managed to get Covid patients being managed on our platform. That’s an area that, as the company grows, we want to make sure that we resource correctly and that we continue to deliver really good customer service.

The other area (of growth) is sales. As we grow into new markets and new territories, we need to grow with additional languages and get our solutions in front of customers and sell them. No company is going to be successful if they don’t have good sales so that’s an area we’re going to continue to invest in as well.

GF: And as you spider out across the world, will they be purely domestic hires or international as well?

EC: That’s an area that we’re very actively thinking about at the moment. The traditional way people would have done it is to hire people with those language skills here and I don’t think that’s necessarily the way of the future. I’d be leaning towards hiring a German sales-person in Germany. To me, that’s the way I’d be leaning at the moment but no firm decision is made on that as of yet.

 

GF: Are you involved with the IT graduate side of things? Would you hire many IT graduates?

EC: Two of the people in our company were hired as graduates. We wouldn’t automatically hire graduates but a couple of really good members of our team, we did hire as graduates so I’m contradicting myself.  Myself, my first job out of college was on a graduate scheme in a large company. I always think that you learn, (it may be more rewarding- I’m biased working in a small company) but you do learn a lot from big companies in terms of process and structure. Where we’re hiring graduates, both of the people we hired as graduates, we knew of them or we knew their lecturers. In general, we’re going to be hiring people with experience rather than graduates, but I think in a lot of the bigger companies, they are better set up for hiring graduates.

GF: It’s an interesting question that I’ve asked a few other of the leaders that I’ve spoken to. If you look at the batch of graduates that left college last year, they’ve probably come out of college with a very different skill-set because of the way they’ve had to learn and socialise. I’m interested to see how those graduates move into the workplace, how they get on and how they compare to other previous graduates.

GF: Eamonn, I know you’re really busy. Let me just finish by saying this, again I just wish you and Patient MPower, a company that I’ve got to know, every success. I know it’s going to be another busy year with that batch of hiring that you need to do and the current surges that are happening with Covid at the moment. Thanks for your help and I wish you continued success with your team and hopefully we’ll talk again very soon.

EC: Thanks very much Gareth!