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December 22, 2021updated 16 Dec 2021 11:22am

CTO Talk: Q&A with Rex Cooper from eConsult

By Elles Houweling

Rex Cooper, the CTO of eConsult, is building digital solutions for the healthcare industry to make consultations between doctors and patients more convenient and efficient.

Founded in 2013, eConsult is a digital triage and remote consultation solutions provider. It allows patients to submit their symptoms or requests to their own GP electronically and offers round-the-clock NHS self-help information and a symptom checker. The company is now live in over 3,200 NHS GP Practices across the UK.

Remote consultation was already a growing trend and – as with other digital trends – it was greatly accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. To minimise the risk of infection and transmission, people were urged to opt for remote consultations whenever possible.

According to GlobalData’s thematic report on medical technology, mobile health is going to define healthcare in the future.

“For hundreds of years, the key drivers of medicine were biology and chemistry,” the report’s authors write. “The new drivers are fast becoming data science and software. In approximately a decade, well-tuned algorithms have the potential to turn gigantic volumes of sensor data into actionable, clinically robust insights that can drive medical diagnoses, treatments, and monitoring.”

Healthtech providers, like eConsult, are expanding rapidly and leading the next wave of medical innovation. In February, the company secured £7m ($9.26m) in a funding round.

In the latest Q&A in our weekly CTO Talk series, eConsult CTO Rex Cooper talks to Verdict about the intersection between tech and healthcare and how it can be leveraged to improve patient experience.

Elles Houweling: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?

Rex Cooper: I have just joined eConsult as CTO. Prior to joining this fast-growth startup, I served as the CTO for more than two years at Your.MD. I opted to move to eConsult because there’s something special about healthcare. I love that I can draw a direct link between the work I’m doing day to day, and making the world a better place. It’s about more than building a tech platform here. It’s about genuinely improving the patient experience and I think that’s something we can all relate to.

Artificial intelligence evangelists almost describe AI as the solution to all problems, but is it all it’s cracked up to be?

As someone interested in science, engineering and design, I’m fairly logical in my approach to problem-solving. It’s because of this that I am not under the illusion that AI is the solution to all problems. Not all problems are amenable to AI – many can be solved by applying consistent rules, or by splitting the problem into smaller, easily solvable pieces. But, I do think that AI has the capability to support us in tackling complex challenges where the rules and underlying logic are not clear. In problem spaces where we have good data, we know what the inputs are and we know what some of the decisions made with that data are, AI can help us. We can use data science techniques to extrapolate decision making to new data sets in a way that a purely rules-based approach cannot.

How do you separate hype from genuine innovation?

There’s a lot of hype around technology, particularly the promise of AI. But for me, genuine innovation should be able to provide answers to these important questions: Is it ethical? What problem will it solve? Will it help people? Is the implementation plan realistic? Is it better than what we already have?

When we say yes to all these questions, we are in a genuinely innovative space.

Where did your interest in tech come from?

As a child, I was always taking things apart and putting them back together. When I was 13, I was given my first ever computer, the now very ancient Commodore Vic 20. Naturally, I took it apart and also managed to put it back together. When I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to university, I chose to study Electronic and Software Engineering because it would give me the knowledge to understand what was going on inside my computer. Understanding how things fit together has been a lifelong quest of mine.

What one piece of advice would you offer to other CTOs?

“Remember that it’s not all about the tech, it’s about the people and the business. For the most part, people don’t understand what we as CTOs and technical people actually do day-to-day. And if they do, then they aren’t necessarily interested and nor should they be. A CTO must focus on the people in their team and how to get the most out of them. They should focus on solving business problems with technology and avoid using technical jargon when communicating.”

What’s the most surprising thing about your job?

Earlier on in my career, I was surprised how much technology leadership is about people and not technology. These days, I am still surprised that it’s possible to meet people who think technology is a utility and a cost centre and not a source of business and competitive advantage.

What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?

The biggest existential threat to humanity is climate change. A big technological challenge is the rise of deepfake videos and voice technology, which pose a real threat to society. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about them. As an engineer, the technology behind them intrigues me. But, the challenge we face is that people are pre-disposed to consuming video and voice-led content, and of course ‘seeing is believing’. The quality and capabilities of those spearheading these deepfakes, be it for politics, scandals or criminality, are only going to get better. It’s vital that we find a way to tackle this disinformation tool before we end up not being able to believe anything we see or hear electronically.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for fun?

For my birthday I went up in a Tiger Moth Aeroplane. It’s basically a motor attached to some wood and canvas. Very old tech. You and the instructor are the only ones in the plane and I was able to take the controls for a short time.

What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment (and why)?

Sticking to eConsult’s mission to use technology to deliver an improved patient, clinician, pharmacist, A&E and wider NHS experience. I would say the most important thing is the recent and very welcome pivot by government and the NHS leadership to using the digital tools and expertise we have in the startup environment of the UK to improve healthcare outcomes. There is so much more we can do. Therefore, the provision of funding for innovation and greater understanding as to how we can use our healthcare data across the system are incredibly important and much needed.

In another life you’d be?

Sticking to the theme of my birthday trip up in the Tiger Moth Plane, I’d have to say that I’d be a pilot. There’s something pretty sensational about being able to fly a truly well engineered piece of equipment like that.