A start-up created by two British medics combines social networks and cloud computing to make hospital staffing more efficient.
As junior doctors at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, a busy hospital in Britain’s eighth-largest city, Jonathan Bloor and Jonathon Shaw had first-hand experience trying to find people to fill shifts at short notice. That process, which can be rich in mislaid faxes, overlooked e-mails and stray bits of paper, revealed what Bloor describes as “the dire financial and human consequences of communication and organisational breakdown in health care”.
Rather than just moaning, the pair decided to fix the breakdown. Building on Shaw’s programming skills and Bloor’s research on healthcare and communications technology, they developed Doctor Communications Solutions Ltd (DocCom for short), a start-up that blends the ease of social networking with the ubiquity of cloud computing.
Hospitals may keep a close watch on patients, but they do not always know where staff members are – or when they might be available. So Shaw and Bloor came up with a social network for health care professionals to stay in touch with medics and to know where and when they were working. “People get lost,” says Bloor. “You don’t know where to get hold of them.” Many hospitals turn to agencies to find the doctors and nurses to fill shifts, a process that can be three or four times as expensive as managing it in-house.
DocCom’s first move was to create Doccom.me, an invitation-only social network where doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals can communicate and socialise. Since its launch in March 2010, Doccom.me has attracted around 7,000 members. Bloor expects it to reach 100,000 within a year. “We have a few things in the pipeline that will help with that,” he says. Among them: specialist networks and mobile applications.
The idea behind the network says Bloor, is to enable medics to collaborate, connect and share information effectively. They become, in effect, a pool of qualified workers who can fill temporary positions. For such an approach to work, says Bloor, “you have got to engage the front-line workforce” by offering them a network they are eager to consult regularly.
The company plans to supplement its social networks with applications that solve specific health care problems. For example, DocCom Locum, launched in December 2010, tackles the issue of finding locums – temporary replacements – from within existing staff.
When DocCom opened for business in 2007, the world outside the IT sector had little exposure to cloud computing. Today, DocCom uses distant servers for most of its operations. The use of cloud technology – specifically, Microsoft’s Azure system – means that DotCom can grow with demand: “Cloud computing,” says Bloor, “is the obvious solution to give us scalability.”
While cloud computing raises concerns about security and reliability, Bloor points out that “cloud-based systems are probably safer than existing systems” – and no less reliable. As a front-line hospital doctor, Bloor says, he is all too familiar with the quirks of conventional systems. “Our hospital's go down all the time.”
DocCom, which makes money by selling its applications to healthcare organisations, has grown steadily since its creation, but is not yet prepared to reveal its revenues. The IT department, which originally consisted of Shaw, now numbers eight software developers, about a half the company’s workforce. The developers are currently working on mobile applications for smart phones.
As medics with no real business experience, Shaw and Bloor sought help from the SETsquared Partnership, which brings together the entrepreneurial-support activities of Bristol and four other universities in the southwest of England. SETsquared helped develop DocCom’s business plan, served as incubator and even offered office space at its Business Acceleration Centre. It also provided business mentoring and networking opportunities with potential investors.
Raising capital remains a challenge for DocCom. The company has obtained financial backing from angel investors and from two UK venture capital funds, Eden Ventures and Pentland Group. DocCom’s latest round of financing, recently completed, raised around €1.2 million. Still, says Bloor, the UK financial crisis has made finding investment difficult.
DocCom has also received backing in other ways. It was designated the business application with the best cloud potential in Microsoft’s 2010 national BizSpark competition, an award that facilitated the company’s move to Azure. DocCom was one of 15 start-ups to win a place that year at Microsoft’s European BizSpark Summit (the Summit provides a unique platform to debate the issues facing tech entrepreneurs in Europe and for some of the best start-ups in Europe to pitch their business ideas to possible investors). The company was shortlisted for the 2011 Science|Business ACES awards. The UK’s Technology Strategy Board invited DocCom to be one of 20 healthcare technology companies in the board’s Future Health Mission to California. Launched and backed by Microsoft, the mission was an opportunity for DocCom to show off its technology to the healthcare community in Silicon Valley, potential investors and partners. DocCom is looking to develop its services in other countries and is talking to a number of potential collaborators, including Microsoft and the UK Technology Strategy Board.
Boor and Shaw have gone in just four years from junior doctors to senior pioneers in social networking and cloud computing. Yet both still practise medicine part-time at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where they continue to gain experience with the problem of filling shifts at short notice. Now, however, they have better tools for the task.
This article was originally published in Issue 9 of the Futures Magazine.
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