After working in the sector for several years, Healthwave founder Shane O’Sullivan realised that the existing pharmacy model in Ireland was ripe for disruption.
Shane O’Sullivan launched Healthwave in 2013 and, over the last seven years, he has grown its customer base to 15,000 members who are serviced through the start-up’s brick-and-mortar pharmacy in Dundrum.
The company’s digital pharmacy service delivers prescriptions to 15,000 customers each month, at no extra cost beyond their €2.99 membership fee.
O’Sullivan said that this fee also gives members access to lower-cost medicine, free nationwide delivery and, most recently, the company’s PillPods service which provides pre-sorted, individualised packages of medication.
Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, the founder and MD said: “We are focused on people who take multiple repeat prescriptions – those with chronic conditions who pay privately at the pharmacy. Healthwave’s goal is to make it easier to order and manage your prescriptions digitally from home while saving people money in the process.”
The main patient groups using the platform at present are those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, diabetes and stomach issues.
‘We believe our PillPods system is transferable to other countries that haven’t yet embraced pharmacy robotics’
– SHANE O’SULLIVAN
Having trained as a pharmacist at University College Cork (UCC) and spent time working in retail pharmacy, O’Sullivan said that Healthwave made the “deliberate” point of only stocking evidence-based products.
“You won’t find homeopathic products in our store, for example,” he said. “Our core offering is prescription medications, which undergo 10 to 15 years of clinical trials before being licensed for sale. This sets us apart from traditional retail pharmacies, as much of their turnover is from non-prescription sales such as cosmetics, vitamins and supplements.”
Healthwave of the future
Besides Healthwave’s product offering, O’Sullivan said that the real differentiator is the technology that the start-up has built for patient engagement and medication dispensing. He said that digital messaging accounts for 80pc of the company’s patient interactions, as the platform allows pharmacists to chat with patients over SMS or WhatsApp.
“During Covid-19, we added CareBot to our messaging platform,” O’Sullivan said. “CareBot is a pharmacist-trained AI chatbot that can triage patient queries either to resolution or to hand over to human pharmacist messaging.”
The chatbot has been trained to handle price enquiries, tax print-outs and order taking, enabling pharmacists to handle more complex patient engagement.
Healthwave has also installed robotic dispensing equipment to increase its capacity. The system can dispense for one patient per minute, producing a chronological roll of pods. Each pod is then checked using a camera backed by a machine learning algorithm which can detect anomalies, such as damaged pills.
“We packaged this into a service called PillPods in June 2020 and it is now the way we supply medicines to anyone who joins Healthwave,” O’Sullivan said.
The founder said that these pods provide a better patient experience, saving customers the time it takes to organise pills into containers at home. The ultimate goal of PillPods is to improve adherence, O’Sullivan explained.
The journey so far
The start-up has seen significant growth in demand for its delivery service as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, as an increasing number of people don’t want to risk visiting pharmacies in person.
Healthwave plans to set up another site to support its operations in Europe within the next two years and will raise funds as part of the process.
“We believe our PillPods system is transferable to other countries that haven’t yet embraced pharmacy robotics,” O’Sullivan said. “Being in the EU opens up a host of new opportunities for us.”
While the business has expansion plans, the founder said that its progress has not come without challenges. He said that the toughest part about running Healthwave was scaling a team.
“For the first year, you are making every decision with a small team around you,” he said. “You are in ful control, which is both good and bad. We are now a team of about 30 which takes a lot of adjustment from a founder’s perspective.”
He added: “Hiring the right people and letting them do their thing is critical. One of the most rewarding stages of the founder journey is seeing projects launch that you weren’t involved in. We’re at that stage now which is credit to the amazing team we have.”