sylvia pfeiffer

Dr Silvia Pfeiffer thought her telehealth startup was doing well. In the early months of 2020, Coviu was servicing 300–400 doctors’ video consultations a day. Healthdirect Australia had selected Coviu to power its government-funded video call service in September 2019, and interest was building in the cloud-based platform that provided encrypted, high-fidelity videoconferencing with data-sharing tools.

Then, as the coronavirus pandemic deepened in Australia and doctors worried about patients while patients worried about waiting rooms, the government announced it would list some telehealth items on the Medicare Benefits Schedule. From 13 March, it would spend $100m to subsidise video and telephone consultations for COVID-19 patients and the vulnerable. Views of the Coviu website doubled that day; within a week they’d jumped 10,000 per cent.

“It was almost like overnight, everyone in Australia knew what telehealth was,” says Pfeiffer, Coviu CEO and co-founder (with Nathan Oehlman) who did her PhD at the University of Mannheim in Germany before joining the CSIRO as a software engineer in 1999. “In one fell swoop, it completely threw our business five to 10 years into the future.”

Coviu had seven employees and urgently needed more customer service staff — there are now around 30. Enquiries pinged day and night, and Pfeiffer hired an assistant. “I immediately knew I would have to become very active,” she says, laughing at the understatement. “Every clinician in Australia was looking for a platform. I would hire two people on Monday, we’d train them, then by Wednesday, they’d be training the next lot of employees.”

Coviu had always scheduled one-on-one demonstrations, walking clinicians through the features and discussing individual circumstances, but on the day of the announcement, those sessions filled for a month. Staff started working in shifts and Coviu shifted to webinars. “One was booked out with 1000 users,” says Pfeiffer. “We now do two or three a day.”

The government announced that it would subsidise all vulnerable general practitioners’ telehealth consultations. By mid-April, Coviu was supporting 25,000 consultations a day and the number of clinicians who had signed up had more than quintupled.

The Sydney-based company, a spin-out from CSIRO’s Data61, was operating in a co-working space, and as it scaled up, entrepreneurs around them were packing their things. Within a week of the mid-March lockdown, Coviu was the only business left, its team scattered across the huge office area. In the midst of unprecedented growth, “it was time for everyone to work from home,” says Pfeiffer, who has employees she’s never met in person. Pfeiffer asked a Coviu board member to handle the surge of investor interest as she focused on infrastructure, IT systems and converting new customers. In May, Coviu was closing a convertible note.

The company put its energies into the Australian market, fast-tracking a virtual walk-in clinic product and integrating a digital prescription service with Rosemary Health.

“There were nights where I would sleep for maybe four hours,” says Pfeiffer. “I’d wake up, check my messages then realise it was 5pm and I hadn’t eaten. It was exhilarating, and I couldn’t bear the thought of one of our customers wanting help and not getting it immediately.”

People had been talking about telehealth for 20 years, says Pfeiffer, mostly regarding rural and remote patients or mental health, but propelled by adoption during the COVID-19 crisis, telemedicine, using the phones, laptops and tablets in patients’ homes, will transform routine practice. Fortune Business Insights estimates the global telemedicine market size will reach US$185.66b by 2026.

Pfeiffer and the CSIRO had explored video-technology applications in government services and finances, but she got excited after successfully applying the technology to speech pathology video sessions. “Everyone would say I was crazy, but I created this business with the goal of transforming the healthcare industry,” she says. “I wanted healthcare to be ready for the 21st century, but to maintain a human connection in an age when everything’s going digital.”

The global pandemic turbocharged her goals, including those for international expansion.

“You forget about yourself,” says Pfeiffer.