The Swiss Digital Health scene has been developing rapidly for some time. As data from Health-Trends shows, there are currently some 170-200 start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) active in this field in Switzerland. They offer products and services for patients, medical doctors, hospitals and healthcare companies, and thus significantly drive innovation in the healthcare sector well beyond Switzerland’s borders.
Zurich - an attractive location for Digital Health
Insights gained from Health-Trends and key takeaways from a joint study compiled by the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and Health-Trends in 2020 show the Canton of Zurich to be a prime hotspot for the Digital Health industry. Other relevant locations for Digital Health in Switzerland are the Lake Geneva region and the greater Basel area1. Zurich’s appeal as a Digital Health hub can be attributed to a host of favourable locational factors, including its many fine universities, such as ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and ZHAW, along with other significant educational institutions, which provide a reservoir of local top-class talent in the field of technology and healthcare. In addition, Zurich’s combination of leading financial centre, coveted head office location for major insurance and technology companies and dynamic life sciences cluster makes it a highly efficient ecosystem in the healthcare sector. The University Hospital Zurich (USZ) plays an important role within that ecosystem, delivering cutting-edge medical research and driving innovation in the Digital Health sector.
This highly attractive Digital Health ecosystem is what prompted the Canton of Zurich's Office for Economy and Labour to draw up a Digital Health map. The map shows the distribution of start-ups and other Digital Health companies across a total of four Digital Health segments. The criteria adopted to include companies on the map were: their head office had to be based in the Canton of Zurich at the time of the survey (i.e., February 2021), and their business model had to be directed towards Digital Health products and services.
What is Digital Health?
Digital Health is a generic term for the topic of digital transformation in the healthcare sector. According to the classification model2 of the Winterthur Institute of Health Economics (WIG), Digital Health can be divided into four segments: Trend Health (lifestyle-oriented), E-Health (medicine-oriented), Tech Health (hardware-oriented) and Data Health (data-oriented).
The Trend Health segment primarily describes lifestyle topics in the Digital Health domain, such as tracking sleep activities, nutrition or sporting activities. A large amount of personal medical information is generated in these areas. This information is mainly used to optimise everyday life, but it is still often of secondary relevance for medical decisions. The focus in the E-Health segment is on medical benefits and, in particular, on connecting patients and doctors. Drawing on various e-health services, medically relevant data can be exchanged, documented and tracked over time in digitised format. The aim is to further develop and simplify healthcare processes. The Tech Health segment is characterised by technology with a specific focus on hardware topics. Medical technology products play a central role within this segment and are characterised by the fact that they can be digitally linked or controlled. The focus is on cutting-edge technology products, such as sensors, robotics and 3D printing. The Data Health segment is dedicated to generating and analysing health-related data. Data Health generally uses and interprets the data obtained from the other three segments and is thus closely linked to those segments. Data-based technologies such as artificial intelligence are often used in this segment.
In sum, while Data Health and Tech Health are strongly characterised by technological aspects, the focus of Trend Health and E-Health is primarily on management-oriented aspects, such as processes, quality and marketing in healthcare. However, the lines between the four segments are not clear-cut.
Digital Health in Zurich
As the «Zurich Digital Health Map» illustrates, there are at least 70 start-ups and other SMEs in the Digital Health sector in the Canton of Zurich Roughly half of these companies focus on the two technology-oriented segments Data Health and Tech Health, while the other half provide services in the management-oriented segments of E-Health and Trend Health.
Within the technology-oriented segments, 23 companies (or 33%) of all companies considered focus on Data Health, while 14 companies (or 20%) are active in the Tech Health segment. Technologies for generating, analysing and accessing data, such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and the internet of things (IoT), are particularly relevant in this segment. Many of the companies considered in the Data Health segment are active, for example, in the analysis and interpretation of data as well as the medical diagnosis based on this. Among the topics often focused on in the Tech Health environment is sensor technology. It is used to monitor supply chain processes or for long-term monitoring of patients, e.g. by means of long-term electrocardiograms or sensor-based monitoring of elderly persons in their own homes.
With a share of 39%, E-Health is the most prevalent segment. A total of 27 Digital Health companies in Zurich provide services that primarily focus on connecting patients and medical professionals, finding the right contact person (e.g. medical doctor or therapist) or documenting health conditions. With only six companies, or a total of 9%, the Trend Health segment is fairly underpopulated compared to the other three segments.
Positive outlook for Digital Health in Zurich
From a global perspective, Digital Health experienced an above-average upswing in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was an innovation booster that further enabled Digital Health to achieve additional growth in numerous countries3. However, it became apparent that, in many countries, digital transformation has not advanced as much in healthcare as it has in other industrial sectors. In addition, increasing investments in Digital Health in Switzerland since 20184 suggest that the potential in this area has not yet been fully exploited.
There are positive indications that the Zurich region will participate in this development: attractive location factors, a large talent pool, high availability of capital and a wealth of know-how in the field of technology will contribute to this development. That being said, it remains essential to promote the foundations required for further development of Digital Health. In addition, the challenges that still exist in the marketplace must also be addressed (from data silos caused by inadequate interoperability to a lack of legal and financial eligibility conditions), so that Digital Health may continue to develop successfully.
Health-Trends is an independent think tank for Digital Health and healthcare innovation. Health-Trends was launched in 2016 with the ambition to track global Digital Health trends and to reflect them against the backdrop of the market-specific characteristics of the Swiss healthcare system.