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Health-care data in the cloud? Early adopter took a giant leap, and it paid off

The decision to go with the cloud may seem like a no-brainer now, but for Think Research there were pros and cons to consider back in 2010


The series: We look at decision makers among Canada’s mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

Living up to the company’s name, Think Research’s Sachin Aggarwal thought ahead to what the future of health-care data could look like. But the outcome took a leap of faith.

“We took health-care data and put it into the cloud back in 2010, when that was completely unheard of,” says Mr. Aggarwal, who became the Toronto-based company’s chief executive officer in September of that year.

“It was when everyone was still putting servers in their basements.”

Founded in 2006, Think Research consolidates and provides data to doctors and other health-care providers and administrators.

“We bring knowledge to the bedside,” Mr. Aggarwal explains. “Medical records, billing systems, they’re really all databases. In a world of accelerating knowledge, solutions like ours are increasing in value.”

Think Research has grown from five people in 2010 to some 220 employees today, mostly in Toronto but also in the United States, with a handful abroad as the company continues to expand. Mr. Aggarwal says Think Research provides its health-care data services across Canada and in the United States to more than 1,500 clients at clinics, hospitals and other medical facilities.

The decision to go into the cloud may seem like a no-brainer now, but there were pros and cons to consider back in 2010, he says.

“We had many clients who refused to go with us on our journey, for fear of security, fear of what might happen to the data.”

While no digital data is entirely secure, cloud computing and data storage is more or less the norm in business and many professions now. And data is arguably more secure in the cloud than it is in a server in an office basement.

“The same way that your money is probably safer mixed up with other people’s money in a bank vault than it is sitting alone in your dresser drawer, your data may actually be safer in the cloud: It’s got more protection from bad guys,” said Quentin Hardy, then New York Times deputy technology editor in 2017.

Another challenge for Think Research was – and still is – that not all health-care data is digitized. Many doctors still write prescriptions in their legendary indecipherable handwriting, for example.

Digitizing all medical records is a continuing challenge, in Canada as well as elsewhere. The previous Ontario government, for instance, was mired for years in attacks over the cost and time it took to adapt paper-based health processes to an e-health system, even as banking, shopping, entertainment and virtually every other aspect of daily life moved online.

It’s more and more apparent that delivering digital data to doctors and medical facilities online helps both practitioners and patients, Mr. Aggarwal says.

Think Research’s health-care data service is used by more than 1,500 clients at clinics, hospitals and other medical facilities in the U.S. and Canada, the company says. Digitizing medical records is an ongoing challenge.

“The system is set up in silos – the doctor’s office, the specialist, the physiotherapist, the hospital. They don’t always get all the information at once, but they should. If you’re a human being, you need all the data that says whether you’re healthy or not,” he says.

Health-care providers can save money by outsourcing their privacy and security management to a cloud-based provider, rather than having each facility manage on its own.

“We can amortize this cost over many facilities, making it miniscule compared with the cost for a single hospital,” Mr. Aggarwal says.

It’s also cheaper to manage the software, he adds.

“Our clients get the newest version of our software every two weeks, and a deployment typically takes half a day. If we had to do that deployment for all facilities using physical servers, you’d have to multiply that time by 1,500,” Mr. Aggarwal says.

Indeed, there’s a long history – for the technology sector, at least – of companies making big bets on a new direction, with some successful, some not so much, says Osh Momoh, chief technical advisor at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District.

More than a generation ago, Apple’s founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak bet big that computers, then used almost exclusively by businesses, would be in everyone’s homes.

“Even something like a computer mouse – it came at a time when a computer was just a keyboard and a glowing green screen,” Mr. Momoh says.

Similarly, he adds, it was risky for Bill Gates to focus on software rather than hardware: in the late 1970s the word “software” wasn’t even commonly used. More recently, Mr. Momoh notes how Netflix repositioned itself from a firm that mailed out rental DVDs to customers to become the ubiquitous entertainment and streaming service it is today.

These company-changing decisions aren’t easy even when they look brilliant in hindsight, Mr. Aggarwal says.

“Often these pivots are very difficult to see. They take a lot to see and are not always easily and widely accepted even by your own team. You have to watch sectors outside of your own to see what’s happening. You have to learn continuously,” he says.

Children learn to code at Think Research in Toronto. The firm holds programs to encourage women in technology and to inspire STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) among young people.

For the original article, visit The Globe and Mail.

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