European Business: VitalAire is the leader in home oxygen therapy and sleep apnea programs and has established itself as an innovative therapy service provider in the German healthcare market. How has it managed to attain this forefront position?
Pascal Strauß: VitalAire was founded in 2000 as the homecare division of Air Liquide. Our parent company is the world leader in gases, technologies and services for industry and health. As it is leading the way in the production of medical gases, the link with homecare services was only logical. The market required efficient home oxygen solutions that would enable patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases to leave hospital after acute treatments, and recover and stabilize their healing process at home. This is in short what VitalAire is all about: We deliver supplemental oxygen to reduce shortness of breath and improve the quality of life for the patient.
European Business: What kind of patients do you support with your services?
Pascal Strauß: There are several lung conditions and diseases that affect normal breathing. One of the most common lung diseases is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can be treated effectively with home oxygen. COPD is caused by smoking, second-hand smoke, air pollution or lung infections in childhood, among other sources. So there have always been patients who require extra oxygen. This is why Air Liquide started to establish a homecare division that is now present in more than 30 countries. VitalAire is its German subsidiary.
European Business: So the focus is on patients with chronic lung diseases?
Pascal Strauß: Another group of patients suffer from sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that causes chronic deprivation and other major health problems. But yes, chronic diseases are at the heart of our services. We support doctors to transfer patients from hospital back to their homes. We offer demonstrations on the use of our devices, masks and tubes in order to take care of patients at home. In Germany, there is a strong separation between general practitioner and hospital, but we help to bridge the gap between these two so that the patient can continue his therapy. We have built up sound contacts with patients, doctors and manufacturers of the devices.
European Business: How would you describe your position?
Pascal Strauß: We provide nursing services, sales personnel, delivery staff and technicians who help patients to adjust and apply the breathing devices. If possible, we offer maintenance at patients’ homes. In general, we are present throughout Germany in order to guarantee short reaction times. We need nationwide coverage as all health insurers, including TKK, Barmer and others, are equally present throughout Germany. At the moment, we provide services for 200,000 patients, including 130,000 sleep apnea patients, 40,000 patients with oxygen therapy and some 10,000 people who require out-of-hospital ventilation with monitoring. The rest is therapy for patients with late-stage Parkinson’s disease. At the moment, we employ a workforce of 1,000 people to provide adequate homecare.
European Business: Have you broadened your portfolio since your early days?
Pascal Strauß: No doubt about that. We have been pushing innovation to improve homecare for our patients. For instance, the new pen therapy for patients with Parkinson’s disease has been put together by drug application specialists. Skincare is an aspect in this subcutaneous apomorphine therapy as the needle is injected every day, and thus, the skin has to be cared for. We have highly qualified care staff at hand, among them some top ventilation specialists. Another new offering is our flat-sharing community concept that offers high-quality nursing.
European Business: What are the challenges your sector will be facing?
Pascal Strauß: A growing number of patients want to be treated at home in familiar surroundings. However, this comes at a cost, and in the end the health insurance companies must be willing to pay for this sensitive service. All parties involved – doctor, homecare specialist and insurer – have to cooperate in order to find the best and most efficient therapy for each patient. Personally, I am driven by the vision that most patients recover much better when they are at home. Even patients with a chronic lung disease manage well at home. For instance, in the past, they had a 7-kg bottle that has now been replaced with a small 2.5-kg thermos flask, which allows for increased mobility.
European Business: So homecare treatment is on the rise?
Pascal Strauß: Definitely, and we have had our share in this development, in particular when it comes to the treatment of patients with respiratory conditions. I have always favoured a liaison of medicine and technology. It is always the better option to fall back on home oxygen therapy than to swallow pills. More and more therapies will be realized at home. However, we have to lay the foundations in terms of payment and high-quality therapies. Homecare must find its way into legislation in order to establish firm and long-standing standards.