TORONTO – “With COVID-19 it’s not been an easy time to raise capital.” In virtually the same breath Joshua Liu, CEO of Toronto-based health-tech startup SeamlessMD Inc. credited the pandemic with nudging investors to spend CA$4 million (US$3 million) to grow his company’s cloud-based patient engagement app, boosting a library of digital plans for surgery, cancer and chronic care and adding machine learning-based risk prediction to remote patient monitoring.

“As terrible as COVID-19 has been for the world, we think the silver lining for our business has been an accelerated shift towards more digital patient engagement and care,” Liu told BioWorld. “More excitement has been created because of that shift and we’re particularly grateful that we have some great partners who want to participate in that with us.”

Why so skeptical?

COVID-19 aside, digital companies have struggled to persuade health care administrators that at-scale delivery of digital care is feasible, practical and convenient for both patients and health care providers. The skepticism is due in part, Liu said, to the access many older patients already have to internet connectivity via smartphones, tablets and desktop computers.

“The other reservation we commonly hear is whether older patients in their 70s and 80s with a device can actually use a cloud-based patient engagement app,” said Liu. “What we’ve learned is that yes they can, and in the event they can’t, a family member is often there to help.”

The patients often in the toughest situations are those older patients awaiting surgery and having to follow paper instructions on what to do prior to and after heart surgery, for example. Paper is easily misplaced, the information sometimes hard to follow, and more critically can’t provide the reinforcement needed to ensure patient compliance.

“What our app does is deliver a digital experience across that entire journey,” said Liu, i.e., surgery prep and follow up instructions via smartphone or web browser and daily reminders about their exercise or rehab regimes. Even more important, said Liu, is the patient’s ability to monitor their care plans.

“That could be tracking their symptoms after they leave hospital, their pain scores and taking photos of their surgical incision,” said Liu. “This information automatically uploads to their health care providers.”

For their part, medical staff insist “there’s no easy way to monitor a patient before and after they leave the hospital, or reach out to them sooner,” said Liu. SeamlessMD remedies this with a secure, online dashboard nurses can use to check for increases in a patient’s temperature or pain score remotely, for example. “In this way we can catch something earlier before you get sick and end up back at hospital,” said Liu.

The proof the platform works, Liu added, are its accumulated data points: more than fifteen clinical evaluations at large academic hospitals like Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Science Centre and Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center show the digital platform has cut recovery times by up to two days, returns to the ER after discharge up to 47%, and hospital readmissions by as much as 72%.

“We’ve had customers who have also enjoyed demonstrated cost savings of up to CA$2,000 (US$1,520) per patient on the platform,” said Liu. “It’s been these data points which have really been critical convincing organizations to say `Hey, this can actually work.’”

Perhaps best of all is that in addition to SeamlessMD’s app on smartphones, tablets, and computers it can be used as an independent platform or integrated with existing Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems.

Knowing the future

In November 2015, SeamlessMD reported its close of a successful CA$1.1 million (US$836 million) seed round to boost commercialization of its cloud-based app platform for real time analytics and patient monitoring. Since then, it has gone on to expand its customer base at hospitals across Canada and the U.S.

More good news occurred last month when SeamlessMD received CA$1.6 million (US$1.2 million) from Ottawa’s Digital Technology Supercluster fund. The goal: reduce surgery backlogs by leveraging its machine learning capabilities for predictive risk. Imagine, Liu said, having the capacity to determine a patient has a 45% chance of being readmitted. “That’s a level of predictability in real time we just don’t have in the world today.”

As vital as COVID-19 has been spurring investments like last week’s announcement of funding for SeamlessMD’s digital app, it won’t end there, said Liu. Long after the pandemic has been contained or eliminated, brand name, academic hospitals like Sunnybrook will continue relying on SeamlessMD for medical research and evidence building.

“That’s great for us because it gets our name out there even more and further validates our platform,” said Liu.