If you’ve ever tried to get your patient records from one medical office to another, you’re probably painfully aware of some of the challenges that exist in the healthcare industry. You may not have even known that your records are your property and that each clinic you have visited likely has a piece of your total record.
Fortunately, one Canadian company is revolutionizing how North Americans approach healthcare, in part by helping to break down the barriers that exist for healthcare records consolidation which is a challenge faced by patients and healthcare workers alike.
WELL Health Technologies (TSX: WELL) was founded in 2018. It is publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX: WELL.TO) and quickly grew. By October 2020, WELL had become a “unicorn” — business term for early stage companies valued at greater than one billion — and their meteoric rise has continued. It’s clear to see why this acquisitive company and their digital-first approach to the healthcare industry is making waves.
Their first move was acquiring 19 clinics in British Columbia in 2018, with the goal of having these medical offices interact with each other, rather than the traditional approach of operating as individual entities. They already understood that technology was the impediment when it came to breaking down the communication barriers between these clinics and optimizing the experiences of the associated physicians and their patients. Acquiring the existing electronic medical record (EMR) service providers became a central part of this strategy. In acquiring these companies, WELL became not just the backbone in their 19 owned clinics, but also the backbone in over 2,200 clinics across Canada, and as Arjun Kumar, their Chief Information Officer says, “Following that, it became [a] sort of fill in the gaps [process]. How could WELL bring innovation to the market quickly and efficiently? That’s when we started focusing on any technologies that were providing or communicating within healthcare and could be integrated into the already existing EMR foundation of these clinics. WELL then invested in or acquired businesses and their products that fit into that model. In short, WELL started with brick-and-mortar clinics, then began acquiring EMR service providers, and then complementary technology and services.”
One such acquisition was a multi-million-dollar deal in June 2019 for KAI Innovations, a small and organically grown med-tech startup. Based in Durham Region, KAI was one of Spark Centre’s earliest clients back in 2012 when KAI began as a service company for a medical software product. They quickly grew into a full-fledged tech company and, within five years, had become one of the largest EMR user bases in Ontario, and the largest provider of Open Source Clinical Application Resource (OSCAR) services to medical clinics in Canada. Fast forward to 2019, and the acquisition extended to the startup’s founders — Kumar and KAI COO Sara Bond, who were brought on as part of WELL’s senior leadership team. Originally KAI’s CEO, Kumar now presides as WELL’s CIO, while Bond is now WELL’s SVP of Product Development. Together, Kumar and Bond lead the company’s EMR division, known as WELL EMR Group.
“I believe that telehealth is here to stay. A blend of both in-clinic and virtual care is a no-brainer. I can’t imagine going to sit in a walk-in clinic for follow-up appointments and prescription renewals anymore when I can go on my mobile phone or computer [for] 15 minutes and see a doctor.”
As Kumar and Bond quickly learned, at the foundation of WELL’s decentralized business model are shared services such as finance, HR, marketing, and legal that are based out of the company’s Vancouver headquarters. The company is then divided into various business units, each focusing on a different area of healthcare. These business units include medical clinics, allied care, WELL EMR Group, Digital Health Apps (which includes its telehealth businesses), billing and back-office services, cybersecurity, and its U.S. businesses (CRH Medical and Circle Medical). These business units are run with a lot of autonomy, almost like their own startups, with the support and backing of the parent company. This approach allows WELL to focus on its highly disciplined and accretive capital allocation program.
When COVID-19 hit, there was a rush to the telehealth sector. Fortunately, WELL had done considerable work and planning in this area prior to the crisis. WELL’s telehealth offering TiaHealth.com, developed in collaboration with Toronto-based INSIG, a leading Canadian virtual care platform that WELL now owns 100 percent of, is one of Canada’s most popular telehealth offerings. Similar to KAI Innovations, INSIG’s original founders continue to lead that business as a wholly-owned subsidiary of WELL. “I believe that telehealth is here to stay. A blend of both in-clinic and virtual care is a no-brainer. I can’t imagine going to sit in a walk-in clinic for follow-up appointments and prescription renewals anymore when I can go on my mobile phone or computer [for] 15 minutes and see a doctor.”
The entire healthcare experience is being re-imagined. “Healthcare has been under-digitized and under-invested in. We’re trying to improve healthcare experiences for both physicians and their patients,” explains Kumar. “Healthcare is one of the few things in life that we don’t get to experience digitally, and WELL is focused on changing that.”
Another gap was filled by investing in a Canadian company called Pillway, a full-service digital pharmacy that fulfills prescribed medication and delivers to your door.
As a digital health app, Pillway fits into WELL’s digital health apps business unit and, along with other curated and approved apps, is featured on WELL’s apps. health EMR application marketplace. While some of these apps are developed by WELL, most are third-party application developers that have applied and been approved to be featured on apps. health. “apps. health’s vision is to become [like] the Apple app store for physicians’ EMR systems,” says Kumar. “It’s a one-stop-shop where you have apps that have gone through an approval process in terms of security vetting, integration, and all of that. Apps may feature a range of categories including anything from online bookings, to text appointment reminders, to portals for patients to access their health information.”
With the focus shifting to digital for all avenues of healthcare, WELL is aware of the risks that clinic owners and practitioners face. These parties are accountable for the security of the data in their control. That’s where WELL’s cybersecurity business unit comes in. It is home to two WELL acquisitions, Cycura and Source 44 — two of Canada’s leading healthcare cybersecurity firms.
As an entrepreneur himself, Kumar understands that “letting go” of your startup can be a difficult decision to make, but that it can also be the best decision. “When people talk about startups, investors always ask what the exit strategy is, but nobody really talks about amalgamating with a larger organization and continuing to build the business.” But when you analyze the growth and achievements of WELL, you can see that many smaller Canadian startups are an integral part of its journey and success.