Finding a global market for physician scheduling technology

A Quebec City company that makes ground‑breaking web tools for hospitals to schedule doctors and manage patient appointments has found a market for its technology in France, through the help of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS).

(Photo: PetalMD)


Marie-Claude Messier
Marie‑Claude Messier, vice-president of business development, PetalMD
(Photo: PetalMD)


Making the right moves in the global life sciences market

Getting ahead in the global life sciences market is challenging, requiring key company strategies and the help of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS). For example, learning about France’s health care system, its technologies and needs was critical for PetalMD to find a market for its products there.

Héloïse Côté, the trade commissioner in Montreal who assists Canadian companies in the sector in their export efforts, says that small firms should focus on specific markets where they can react to potential opportunities. She says that PetalMD “does its homework,” taking the time to understand the market and players, and is “strong in follow ups. When we connect them to a lead, they act immediately on it, which is the right attitude to adopt to enhance the chances of success.”

While the TCS “certainly plays a role in helping companies gather intelligence on a market, at some point the company needs to read it, do its own research and adapt its international strategy accordingly,” Côté comments. “It’s like getting prepared for an exam: the TCS can be seen as the teachers that provide the essential information on a specific market, and the company can be seen as the student that needs to study in order to succeed.”

Emilie Delestrade, the trade commissioner responsible for the life sciences sector in France, notes that business there is conducted in a very different way than in North America. “It is important to meet people in person. PetalMD understood this, and it did not hesitate to make several trips to France. It found a local representative and developed a relationship with a partner well-recognized and connected in the local market.”

The tendering system can be lengthy and requires patience, she says, for example France’s public hospitals procurement process is complex, technical and lengthy. “PetalMD worked with a local consultant who was well‑versed in the exercise,” responding to the tender quickly and efficiently. “You have to be aware that if a document is missing or a sample arrives past the deadline, a company submission is dismissed.”

Canadians competing for contracts must get themselves known in advance by purchasing groups and hospitals, Delestrade says, from their product’s total cost to issues like training and producing literature in French. “Having the lowest bid does not mean winning the tender,” she remarks, noting that purchasing department representatives in French hospitals tend to ask for references in the country itself.

She says that partnering with Microsoft on the AZUR platform was a smart move for PetalMD, “as it brings visibility and Microsoft’s reputation. Purchasing groups have mentioned there is certain attractiveness to purchasing from large players such as Microsoft.”

Côté says that one important part of Petal MD’s strategy has been offering pilot projects to potential international buyers, which “facilitates and accelerates the penetration phase. It is actually a very strategic approach that I would recommend to other innovative companies looking at opening a new market.”

Overseas sales can be lucrative and “companies in this sector have to think broader to survive,” but don’t overlook the importance of success at home, Côté cautions.

“While Quebec is a small market and Canada represents less than 3 percent of the global market in life sciences, it’s necessary to address the local market first in order to build a strong business case on how the solutions can create added value,” she explains. “In life sciences and more specifically for a medical device or health IT solution, gathering data in order to prove the economic value of its utilization is key.”

She adds that the TCS in Canada can help companies address this challenge and offers assistance in adapting their pitches and strategies.

PetalMD, which has a vast market of health care authorities across Canada using its cloud‑based systems to deal with their complex physician management needs, is finding that many of the same challenges affect customers for its products abroad, says Marie‑Claude Messier, the company’s vice‑president of business development.

With the assistance of the TCS and provincial trade programs in Quebec, PetalMD has signed up two hospitals in France and another in Belgium, and it is talking to more potential customers in Europe and beyond.

“The TCS helps us reach decision‑makers,” says Messier, noting that health systems in countries are all “quite different”, so it’s important to get to the right people and get the word out about PetalMD’s unique products. “Trade commissioners do have a lot of great contacts.”

The company was started in 2009 to respond to a critical need for software solutions to align physician scheduling with patient demand. Most hospitals, clinics and health regions still rely on paper‑based systems for the task, Messier says, noting that it can take 50 to 100 hours every one to three months to manually draw up and publish their schedules. These quickly get out‑of‑date, for example if a doctor is suddenly called away for an emergency or a personal reason.

“It’s a nightmare understanding all the constraints; there can be professional ones, legal ones and administrative ones linked to hospitals, and physicians have their own constraints, because they work everywhere and have many commitments and obligations,” she says. Some hospitals as well as “geeks in physician teams” try to amend standard calendar systems like Outlook into custom tools, but these can be complex to use.

PetalMD’s technology “creates the schedule,” Messier says, allowing all kinds of factors to be incorporated into the program by departmental planners, who can then produce a physician timetable in just a few clicks. Doctors who suddenly have conflicts can replace themselves on a peer‑to‑peer basis. PetalMD offer a complementary application to allow patients to book their own appointments directly online. PetalMD is the only vendor offering physicians scheduling and patient booking.

“We are creating the schedule to ensure 24‑7 coverage in all hospital departments,” she explains, noting that once the schedule is created or changed, all qualified staff within the hospital or health region have access to the information. “Everyone knows who’s working, everyone knows who’s on call.”

PetalMD’s schedule management tools are deployed in 1,400 departments in hospitals and regional health authorities across Canada, with a total of 37,000 users in 150 hospitals.

Looking abroad, PetalMD’s first task was to validate the need for the technology elsewhere in the world, which Messier says was accomplished in a series of outreach exercises in Europe, such as a federal‑provincial trade mission to France in 2017. “We can confirm that European customers have the same challenges at managing physicians’ schedules, changes and on‑call needs,” she says.

Héloïse Côté, a trade commissioner in Montreal whose responsibilities include the life sciences sector, connected Messier in June 2017 to Emilie Delestrade, the trade commissioner who assists Canadian companies in the sector with their export efforts in France. The TCS Paris team introduced the company to potential buyers in public and private hospitals and purchasing groups, arranged meetings in France, gave PetalMD visibility on social media and involved the company in a joint mission of French and Belgium buyers to Montreal, in collaboration with Quebec trade officials.

It also identified business opportunities and calls for tenders, such as one at Le Vinatier Hospital Center, a large psychiatric facility in Bron, a city near Lyon. The hospital was finding that scheduling 220 physicians took more than 35 hours, Messier says. PetalMD’s solution, which was implemented in just 18 days in December 2017, has cut the task to a few minutes, saving the facility money and simplifying its systems.

“For our hospital, the PetalMD solution is a breath of fresh air,” says Florence Grellet, director of medical affairs and research at Le Vinatier, noting that the system allows doctors to exchange information autonomously and “eliminates the risk of human errors linked to the manual entry of data.”

Côté has helped PetalMD on a number of fronts, such as connecting it to TCS experts related to EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. “I have to be the eyes and ears of companies regarding any information, intelligence or activities they could be interested in, based on their needs expressed and technology offered,” she says.

Emilie Delestrade, Sandrine Caduc and Stephanie Robin, trade commissioners in Paris and Brussels covering the science and innovation sector, have helped PetalMD understand the structure, constraints and technologies in the French and Belgian health‑care systems.

“PetalMD’s on‑call dashboard and physician scheduling tool are a true innovation, answering an important need in France,” says Delestrade. “With their growing experience of the local market, the company has developed a fine-tuned strategy.”

The fact that PetalMD’s solution is hosted on Microsoft’s AZUR platform and it has a strategic partnership with Microsoft has also helped with marketing. PetalMD is among a handful of health vendors in Canada that Microsoft promotes internationally, for example featuring the company in webinars and at the huge Paris Healthcare Week held each spring.

Looking internationally for customers is challenging, says Messier. Sales cycles are long, so to already have two customers in France and one in Belgium in the past year is “unusually fast,” she comments.

The TCS has been invaluable in the process, for example accompanying PetalMD in meetings with prospective customers, Messier adds. “If the trade commissioner comes with us, that’s ideal. When they introduce us, the door is wide open.”

Other international markets that the company is looking at include the UK, Switzerland, the United States and South Africa.

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