New system relieves healthcare pressure

27 Nov 2003

Bill Rickard (pictured) runs a company called Dabl that specialises in technology for the healthcare and he’s frustrated with his customers. He feels there is a reluctance to invest in new systems in the health service because of the fear that the money would be going down a black hole – a fear that he believes to be totally groundless. “There’s a feeling that you can never save money in the health sector. That’s simply a load of cobblers.”

He knows better than most the difference technology can make to healthcare. Using software developed by Dabl, one Beaumont Hospital clinic reduced patient waiting time by 94pc and increased patient satisfaction by 98pc.

The Dabl system collates and interprets accurate patient data from blood tests and blood pressure monitors in doctors’ surgeries and hospitals. The data is used to produce reports that help doctors decide the right course of treatment for patients. “One of the big things now is the concept of patient compliance – to get a patient on the treatment and keep them on it. Our system helps the doctor communicate the initial risk [to the patient] and then to show both the doctor and the patient the progress,” notes Rickard.

Not only that, the system has allowed hospitals manage their out-patient clinics more efficiently. Take Beaumont Hospital, for example. Before the new system was deployed, a Physical Anticoagulant Clinic had operated there for years. Over time, this clinic had become hard to manage with patients often having to spend up to three hours there, giving a blood sample and then waiting for a result, which would be written into medical records. The introduction of Dabl has changed all that. Nowadays patients arrive, give a blood sample and leave. The once lengthy visit has been cut to a mere 15 minutes. The nurses update Dabl with the results of the test and then send the patient and his or her GP a copy of the results and their medication.

The new system also promises to relieve some of the immense pressure on the secondary healthcare system by ensuring that more cases are dealt at primary healthcare stage, ie in the GP’s surgery. It is known, for example, that half of all heart patients visiting consultants at Beaumont Hospital are deemed ‘low risk’ and ought, therefore, be treated by their GP. So the Department of Health is funding a pilot system known as Reduction in Heart Attack and Stroke Prevention within six GP surgeries linked to Beaumont Hospital’s Dabl system via a web browser. When a GP is concerned about a patient’s heart health, they would usually refer the person straight to a consultant. Under the pilot system, the GP examines a patient and feeds the information into the Dabl system in order to determine whether the patient is high, medium or low risk. Only higher-risk patients are referred straight to a consultant. “We are hoping to stop 50pc of people being referred to the consultants,” says Rickard with satisfaction.

His interest in the area began four years ago when he was approached by Professor Eoin O’Brien, head of Cardiovascular Medicine at Beaumont Hospital, who had overseen the development of a cardiovascular disease management system. O’Brien was looking for a technology partner who could refine the system and then commercialise it. Together O’Brien and Rickard, at the time an IT and management consultant, set up a company for this purpose. The company was called Dabl, after the prototype system that had been developed. A sister company, ECF Medical, was also established to distribute the systems worldwide.

Two programmers were immediately hired and the company embarked on a two-year plan to re-engineer and refine the system. The priorities were to web-enable the system so it could be accessed via a web browser and make it more stable and user-friendly. It was also important that medical staff could pick it up quickly. “We wanted to make sure that although it was a sophisticated system, people could be trained to use it within three half days,” says Rickard.

Dabl systems have now been installed in nine hospitals altogether as well as 100 GP practices. But its success is not limited to Ireland. Dabl has customers in Belgium, Spain and Italy, a distributor has just been appointed in France and the system was recently sold to its first US healthcare institution.

The company is now looking to raise €2m in first-round funding to finance product development and accelerate the drive into new markets. Enterprise Ireland has already agreed to invest in the venture and Dabl is also looking to attract private investors that have the expertise in health-related markets.

Dabl’s early success suggests that there is a huge need for effective and tailored technology in the healthcare sector – particularly in the disease management area – and that major savings can be made in the process. Rickard is convinced that Dabl’s achievements are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what technology in the healthcare sector can achieve. He believes the hospital waiting lists we hear so much about could be dramatically reduced if doctors were given the right tools to run their clinics more efficiently. “It not about software packages. It’s about looking at the way things are done and using technology to improve management systems,” he concludes.

The role of technology in health has also been recognised by the Government. In fact, at the launch of the Dabl system in Beaumont earlier this month, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Ivor Callely TD, said that e-health would be one of the priorities for the Government during its EU presidency next year.

Despite the Government’s stated intentions in this area however, Rickard cannot hide his frustration at the slow progress of the e-health agenda in Ireland to date and he describes as “appalling” the delay in introducing a unique identifying number for patients, a long-mooted scheme whereby a person could visit a GP in any part of the country and have their health record called up from a central database using this number.

By Brian Skelly