Following pandemic-driven lockdowns and widespread disruption in social services, telemedicine and telehealth services have soared around the world as more and more patients seek alternatives to traditional healthcare access.
However, Germany, which is home to the largest healthcare system in Europe, has been slow to digitize its healthcare system — and until two years ago, the country did not allow video consultations or electronic prescriptions.
Navigating this complex regulatory landscape has no doubt been a challenge for healthtech firms like Munich-based firm Wellster, which launched in May 2019 with a goal to promote easy access to a digital health solution addressing everyday issues such as mental and reproductive health, hair loss and skin conditions.
“One big challenge is that Germany is lacking standards of practice. At the moment, it is up to us [healthtech firms] to control ourselves through our medical board and for them to create guidelines. Not everyone will hold their company to such a high standard,” Dr. Manuel Nothelfer, Wellster’s co-founder told PYMNTS.
Another hurdle is the uncertain political and legal landscape around administering telemedicine services. “Just last December, the federal court of justice set very strict limits on advertising in telemedicine. This way, we are missing out on trendsetting, digital developments,” Nothelfer argued.
But even though Wellster might be losing out on these key growth opportunities, the company is determined to disrupt the established healthcare market by plugging the significant shortage of medical specialists in the country, while addressing the shame patients feel around certain subjects.
“Oftentimes, our customers are aware of their health problems, but they fear stigmatization and not being taken seriously. With Wellster, the threshold to getting the right care is much lower,” Nothelfer explained, adding that they offer personalized, in-home healthcare services so that patients can consult, get diagnosed and receive prescribed medications all in one place.
“We want our patients to feel like they are in the right space every step of the way. We do this by changing the healthcare market, not revolutionizing it: all players are included in our platform, [including] doctors and pharmacies,” he added.
He also highlighted the need for an online-offline hybrid model for telemedicine to be efficient, which is the reason why Wellster collaborates with around 8,000 “offline” pharmacies across Germany, enabling patients to easily pick up their medication in their trusted pharmacy merely three hours after their prescription.
An all-inclusive platform
Since its online launch, the German company has been providing direct-to-consumer (D2C) treatments through two sub-brands, — Spring (dedicated to men’s sexual and lifestyle health) and Easy (overseeing medical testing and mental health) — serving over 1.5 million patients and generating over 200% revenue growth in the past 12 months alone.
“We first wanted to focus on men’s health to perfect all our services in one area first — and because men shy away from a doctor’s appointment even more often than women,” Nothelfer explained.
But he acknowledged that women have similar concerns and problems when it comes to healthcare, and they have been waiting for the right funding to come along to extend their services to female patients.
And that time has come now, Nothelfer said, following the announcement this month that the firm had raised 17.5 million euros ($19.5 million) in a Series B round in addition to a 35 million euro ($39 million) capital injection secured six months prior.
That total sum of over $60 million has been earmarked for the launch of a “FemTech” healthcare brand across Europe to complement their male-focused service, Spring, offering women treatments for a range of intimate and lifestyle health concerns.
“We are happy this [the funding] is now the case. We’ve also made sure to include some of the leading female experts on our medical board to make sure that women’s health concerns are a top priority,” Nothelfer noted.
Policymakers As Allies
The healthtech vertical is rapidly evolving, and Nothelfer said simply replacing the classic market players no longer works.
“A normal pharmacy can’t just be taken over by the online version. We need decentralized solutions like medical software; offers for primary care doctors, doctor offices and hospitals work quite well,” he explained, using Sweden’s Doktor24 and Paris-based Doctolib as examples of firms offering business-to-business (B2B) solutions that make access to treatments easier.
He further stressed the importance of tailoring offers to patients’ needs, a strategy that gives fully-integrated platforms like Wellster an upper hand over its competitors.
Overall, the role of legislators will be critical in creating a flexible telemedicine landscape that will, in turn, ensure that healthtech firms have their rightful place as an important part of the German healthcare system.
As Nothelfer said: “The time for digitization of the healthcare sector is now, [and] we need policymakers who understand that in order for us to care of the population, healthtechs that hold themselves to the highest medical standards like us need to be able to provide their services freely.”