Dr Ed Wallitt is the Founder, Consultant and Software Developer at Podmedics, a medical IT consultancy and an award winning educational service for medical students.
(Interviewed in April 2014)
I qualified from Imperial College in 2008 and did 2 years of Foundation training before training to be a GP in London. In 2011-12, I left Medicine completely to run my own medical/IT consultancy.
I must say this all started rather by accident. My first foray into the business world was actually when I was a medical student. I was one of those medical students who found it very difficult to sit down at my desk, open a textbook and make notes on the whole thing. So, I bought a cheap voice recorder and recorded some notes, instead of writing them down. I used to listen to those while travelling each day to and from hospital attachments as a way of revising. One day a friend of mine distributed my recordings to a few of his friends and later said “You should really put these online”. I never recorded them for that purpose but I was interested in technology and decided to give it a go. I got a basic website together and submitted the episodes to iTunes. It was amazing that Apple immediately featured them. Before I knew it, I was seeing a hundred people listening to them, then 200, then 1000, 3000, 10000. Suddenly I realised this was something popular. That was when I first started to think about starting a business.
Once I qualified, I continued to run Podmedics and further developed the website. In the process of doing that, I got more interested in technology, learnt to code and I started doing small projects for Consultants who I was working for at the time. Gradually I realised that there was a niche for someone who had a medical experience and a strong technical background. I could provide software development services in a way that most other companies doing similar things could not because they didn’t have the medical expertise. Then I was offered a large contract and I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to do this work and continue practising clinical medicine full time. So I made a rather big decision to drop out of my GP training to do software consultancy full-time. I was only a year from qualifying as a GP, so it was a difficult decision.
Well, I didn’t. (laughs) It was at the back of my mind for such a long time. What essentially happened was I got a permission from my then girlfriend – who is now my wife – who said “Look, you’ve got to do it, and I will support you”. My family also said I should do it. I was very fortunate that I had a company already in place and the financial security from that company to make the transition, but I could not have done it without the support of my friends and family.
I would say my mentors were the Consultants I was working with at the time who gave me the opportunity to build software and to get started in this. In fact even now that the company has grown considerably from just me sitting and coding to about 10 of us, our largest work is still with the original people who gave me the opportunity to get started in this field and to build a reputation of my company.
On a very basic level it was the desire to want to make things better: we are all trained in Medicine to find things that are broken and try to fix them. As I was working as a doctor, I saw things within the IT system that I thought could be done so much better and would result in a considerable improvement in the quality of care.
Quality of care for patients was another large aspect I wanted to improve. I realised that by building systems that would help doctors I could make a lot more impact for patients.
The hardest thing to learn was software development. I took it upon myself to learn from scratch how to build web and mobile applications. The next thing I had to learn was business itself. Rather arrogantly, at first I thought that being in a business you just do what makes sense. Gradually over the last 2.5 years I got to learn that to run a successful business you do need to know about how business and funding work. Networking is a huge part for developing a business and it certainly didn’t come naturally to me, and I had to learn the techniques. I would also say that a very large challenge on the business side was learning about marketing. Marketing is so unbelievably important when you are producing a product and advertising your services. Learning how to do it effectively in our modern age filled with Facebook, Twitter and other social channels was a real challenge.
The initial challenge was the uncertainty. Even though in people’s medical careers there is some uncertainty “Will I get this training job? Will I get to this place?” – actually, as a doctor in the UK, you can pretty much always earn a wage (eg locum). When I started, I was not earning a wage in clinical medicine and I did not have time to do locums, so I knew I needed to generate enough business to support myself and my family. I also had to learn how to tackle my own psychological trepidations about getting into the entrepreneurial space and be immersed in this world full of competition and tendering.
I was very lucky I’d started early and I’d grown my business while I was working as a doctor. I was also saving, so I was fairly financially secure at the time when I actually left Medicine.
I wish my opportunity had come a year later when I’d finished my GP training. I think that psychologically I’d have been happier if I got a Certificate of Completion of Training. But these things never happen at the right time. I wish I’d been more aggressive in terms of marketing my company, really diving into the entrepreneurial space without the fear of my ability to function within it.
Similarities: the level of lateral thinking, the ‘fixing things’ element, finding problems and solutions, and communication, particularly within teams. I learnt a lot about how to effectively and ineffectively run a team during my time as an NHS doctor, which definitely helped in my business life.
Differences: As a person starting a business, you can feel isolated, at least initially. In the NHS, you can usually find someone who will help if there is a problem.
How do you think you have personally changed since leaving a full-time clinical role, and how likely are you to be going back?
I’m definitely not going back. Having been on this side of things, psychologically I would find it very difficult to go back. Also, going back becomes harder once you get further away. My perspective has changed. You suddenly start to see opportunities on a daily basis. I love being able to manage my own time. I can work how I want and can pursue things in a way that I want. Stepping off the train tracks of medicine is very liberating.
It’s the products that I build that make a difference. Seeing a project going to completion means you make a real positive impact on the work and the lives of doctors, and on patient care. Also my team – I’m very lucky to have a fantastic team of developers and designers who make it a real joy to get up in the morning and to work on these projects.
Ideas themselves are very cheap. It takes energy, time and often money to push ideas through. A lot of people develop a tunnel vision and get very attached to their ideas. You should do market research, evaluate and discard most of ideas, and if you do keep some around, be very certain you’re not pursuing something that ultimately is not going to be useful or used by anybody.
We do about 40% internal projects and 60% UK-wide client work (NHS or startups), building either clinical or educational systems. The goal is to move away from doing client work and focus on our major internal products. There is Podmedics.com (educational videos for the undergraduates), and we are about to launch a new website with new features to help people to monitor their progress. The other big project is “Induction’, which is a smart phone application that gives doctors the information that they need to work in any UK hospital, and we hope eventually in any hospital in the world. This app will enable doctors to see all the telephone and pager numbers, to get the guidelines, to find out how to make referrals, and even to find out where the best coffee is! The content of the app is contributed by the doctors themselves. I’m very excited about this work, as it will make a real difference to the hospitals, the hospital teams and patient care.
There is a fundamental flaw in that, which is the money bit of it. I am not a philosopher but a lot of people are incredibly focused on the money and not necessarily focused on what they’re doing to get the money, and the money becomes the end point. Ultimately that creates a cycle where you are simply working in order to earn money, in order to continue to live, to continue to work, doing something you don’t always enjoy, which for me isn’t a good life. I believe that you should do what you love and eventually you can turn it into something that you will get good money for. If you really-really enjoy something and you are really passionate – of course that could be medicine but not necessarily – then you will find a way to get money for it, if you need it. But more importantly, you’ll be satisfied in your life and that’s something that for me is certainly much more important than the money side of it.
Thank you very much Ed!