A tight knit group of data scientists want to make the world a better place
Dr Marcus Ong’s business mantra is the same approach he learnt as a science student at university: “always question everything.” It was that instinct that drove him to transform a consultancy firm into an innovative software company Patchs Health, which is focused on solving the problems facing Britain’s health service through the application of AI.
Back in 2014, Dr Ong and his business partner Dr Daniel Sprague founded Spectra Analytics, now Patchs Health, with the central focus of providing advice and assistance to businesses looking to expand their use of artificial intelligence (AI). They were setting themselves up as a small, ambitious competitor to traditional consultancies with little digital expertise.
But it was a tough mountain to climb, and Dr Ong soon realised that it would be immensely difficult to scale a digital consultancy with few resources amid such fierce competition in the sector. Instead, he and Dr Sprague decided to combine consultancy with a new focus on software development, transforming the company. “It came at the right time,” says Dr Ong. A burst of interest in artificial intelligence in the past decade, combined with their passion for healthcare, refined the company’s focus. Whilst they had always striven to help businesses harness the benefits of AI, they now saw that they could apply their expertise to the challenges facing an overstretched primary care sector and help patients more easily access the help they need.
Digitising healthcare has also been a central priority of the UK government for several years now: Innovate UK’s Digital Health Technology Catalyst has been going since 2017, so when Patchs approached them in early 2018 for help funding a study into the feasibility of applying AI to triage in the primary care process, Innovate UK was convinced that Patchs was on to something. Following a rigorous and highly competitive process, Innovate UK came forward with an initial £54,000 grant, and when the study confirmed the validity of Patchs Health’s approach Dr Ong was able to apply successfully for further follow on funding.
Innovate UK not only got the project off the ground, but having contributed some £1.15m of funding over several years, it has seen Patchs Health through to the point of market entry. Its Patchs system is now one of the fastest growing online patient services, supporting over 10 million patients nationwide. The support of Innovate UK also enabled Patchs Health to bring in academic and commercial partners, such as the University of Manchester and Advanced Health and Care.
Put simply, Patchs is an AI-enhanced online consultation system which not only makes it easier for patients to contact their GP practices, but also streamlines GP workflows – with the ultimate result that pressures on overstretched practice staff are alleviated. It is estimated that around a quarter of GP appointments are avoidable, because they centre around essentially administrative tasks like receiving tests results or assessing ailments that don’t necessarily require examination. “By safely and efficiently automating initial triage processes,” says Dr Ong, “Patchs is able to substantially reduce the time previously required to process patient enquiries.”
The solution starts with first patient contact. While GP surgery receptions have “no real prioritisation based on clinical need”, the Patchs system immediately assesses patients based on factors including symptoms, patient data and medical records and evaluates the urgency of their case accordingly – it triages them.
This is not an uncompetitive field. There are a variety of digital patient triaging services, but Patchs has an edge because it combines free text entry with AI. Patients are able to write what they like about their problems, rather than being hemmed in by pre-made tick boxes. The AI is then advanced enough to assess the idiosyncrasies of each case and determine the urgency of the request and who is best to support the patient. The beauty of the AI is that it learns from thousands of GPs every day how to most appropriately assess patients.
As a public sector body, Innovate UK’s culture and approach were well attuned to the needs of working both in a university research environment and the National Health Service. Whereas commercial funders would have been primarily focused on whether Patchs would generate the financial turn they were looking for, Dr Ong felt that Innovate UK was more concerned with collating sufficient evidence that funding the project was “the right thing to be doing.”
As Dr Ong points out, such things are important. Healthcare is rarely comfortable ground for experimentation and innovation, with its unique concerns and sensitivities about patient outcomes and welfare.
With healthcare, you don’t want to go down the traditional Silicon Valley route of move fast and break things.
– Dr Marcus Ong, co-founder of Patchs Health
In this sector, he emphasises, “doing it badly can have huge consequences – people can actually be harmed.” For this reason Dr Ong has always made it a priority to recruit the brightest and the best: he actively seeks to build connections with mathematicians and data scientists working at top universities. “A lot of talented people doing PhDs don’t necessarily want to be in academia,” he notes. “But nor do they want to be completely in industry.” Patchs Health appeals to these individuals precisely because its work and mission bridges these fields.”
In fact, wellbeing has been much on Dr Ong’s mind of late – so much so, that the company recently launched a new Counselling & Wellbeing Programme, prompted by the crisis in mental healthcare currently facing the UK. In partnership with Telus Health, Patchs Wellbeing Programme combines 1-to-1 counselling with a suite of online tools that are available to people 24/7. “So many people find it hard to access support for their mental health these days,” Dr Ong says. “Waiting lists are long and counsellors are hard to find. That’s why we’ve launched this new programme – it is a first, small step towards addressing the problem.”
The team’s unity of purpose is what drives Patchs’s innovation. Before he founded the company, Dr Ong worked as a derivatives trader. But while he is glad of the experience, Dr Ong likens trading to “a game” without a clear mission. What drives him now is a desire “to look back and say I’ve done something worthwhile”. Healthcare was a somewhat obvious choice: his mother and father both worked as nurses, and originally met on a ward.
Much like his parents, he says he is driven by a desire “to give people the healthcare they need when they need it”. While the business has worked in sectors as varied as hospitality and finance, Dr Ong maintains that healthcare is now the focus. After the heavy delays in procurement throughout the pandemic, he is optimistic about achieving his goal of rolling out Patchs through the health service.
Award winning solutions
Their work is not going unnoticed. Recent winners of the ‘Best use of AI and Automation Tools’ at the Health Tech News Awards, the company were also awarded ‘Covid-19 Solution of the Year’ at the 2023 Health Tech Digital Awards. All we can say is: “watch this space.”
In the meantime he continues to advocate for the use of digital transformation across sectors, arguing that it is one of the most effective ways to increase productivity and improve services.