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Observations

Ending the ‘brain-drain’: Clarity Informatics plans expansion

The North East, like so many areas of the UK over the years, continues to be locked in a battle to retain its brightest talent against job opportunities in London and the South East. However, keen to highlight a counter example to the ‘brain-drain’ narrative, Greg Rosenvinge speaks to Tim Sewart, chief executive at Clarity Informatics, and Neil Laycock, chief operating officer at Agilio Software Group, about the latter’s recent acquisition of the healthcare technology provider, Clarity’s history as an organisation and what the deal means for employment in the North East

On June 1, Wallsend-based healthcare technology provider Clarity Informatics announced it had been acquired by the increasingly expanding Agilio Software Group, which has bought five companies in the last 18 months.

Clarity has established itself as one of the UK’s largest providers of IT solutions to primary care healthcare professionals and organisations, including GPs and practices, and primary care networks and integrated care systems, and employs more than 50 people in the region.

Alongside Agilio’s other divisions in the dental and hospital sectors, the Clarity office is set to become head of Agilio’s GP division, which Agilio says will grant it continued executive responsibility and reflects the company’s divisionalised corporate structure.

Starting out as a not-for-profit organisation founded in the mid-1990s by a group of academics from Newcastle University’s health informatics department, Clarity was initially known as The Sowerby Centre for Health Informatics in Newcastle, and provided clinical knowledge summaries – guidance resources on how to treat around 360 of the most common health conditions – for GPs across the country.

That was until the late 2000s, when this research-heavy focus, with lots of clinician/doctoral staff being seconded from local NHS trusts to provide high-quality, specialist and up-to-date guidance, began to incorporate a more commercial approach.

Following a change of majority ownership, Tim Sewart, current chief executive at Clarity Informatics, joined and began to oversee a new software development strategy, developing a line of products in back-office technology, specifically appraisal and compliance/sharing software, that is used by 80 per cent and 60 per cent of all English GP practices respectively.

This is alongside continued success in clinical knowledge support work that began before commercialising its business model – nearly 50 per cent of the NHS’ clinical workforce still uses Clarity’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence-approved clinical knowledge summaries.

“When I joined Clarity, we were fully focused on transforming the business from its not-for-profit, academic origins into also being a for-profit software business, with a new focus on launching new products,” says Tim.

“And we’ve probably become more famous for our software, as the guidance we write for the NHS has their branding on it, and so generally people are probably unaware of the work we do there.

“Joining forces with Agilio can only be seen as good news for the region, as we are going to take on new people, specifically highly-skilled professionals, which is great as we are fed up with the so-called ‘brain drain’ of North East professionals having to move down to places likes London and the South East for employment opportunities.

“Unlike most in the high-tech sector, we are a genuine North East business that is expanding and bringing new opportunities, and I think that is something we can all get behind and be proud of.

“With a partner like Agilio, that not only has the capital and scale to allow us to grow, but also shares a desire to invest in the North East, the future looks bright.”

Dr Sati Sian, executive chairman of Agilio Software Group, adds: “We are delighted to welcome the highly-experienced Clarity team into the fold.

“Adding the Clarity GP platform represents the next major step for Agilio on its journey to provide broad solutions for managing practices in all healthcare settings.”

The positive mood is reflected by Neil Laycock, Agilio Software Group’s chief operating officer, who says acquiring Clarity is part of a sustained plan to expand its back-office technology coverage across all markets within the healthcare industry.

“Clarity’s GP products and its synergies with our other markets, particularly our compliance solutions, training and HR products in the dental and hospital sectors, were significant,” he says.

“As the main player in the dental sector, we were incredibly impressed by the market position that Clarity had built over the years, and felt it was the perfect partner for us to get into the GP sector and continue to grow a consistent presence across all healthcare sectors.

“It gives us a great opportunity to operate a lot faster and be more entrepreneurial through having this increased scale.

“We can bring new products to market quicker by, for example, potentially deploying tools that work in the GP sector within our dental and hospital sectors.

“Having a cross-sector presence across healthcare allows us to learn from various contexts and get ideas deployed in new settings quicker and more efficiently.”

Neil continues: “Clarity is a great fit with us culturally too – we met Tim some time ago and having spoken to him and his team, we sensed a similar passion and motivation for healthcare and the importance of administrative efficiency for such a crucial public service, which is key for bringing businesses like ours together.”

The acquisition looks set to create new high-skilled jobs for the region, with Clarity’s links to Newcastle University being admired by Agilio as a potential source of recruitment.

A new sales activities team is being drawn up and the existent software development team is set to grow as Clarity looks to upscale operations.

Tim says: “There have always been businesses interested in acquiring us.

“Luckily, we were in a position where our shareholders were only interested in selling if we could find an acquisition partner who shares our vision and would invest in our business.

“We refused to sell to someone who would lay off our staff, take the product elsewhere and run it all from somewhere like Southampton.

“I’ve known the guys behind Agilio for quite some time and built a good relationship with them.

“We worked together in figuring out the point of this transaction and we agreed it was all about growth – about building something on a national scale and getting Clarity to the next level.”

Neil is also quick to outline the autonomous responsibility that Clarity will continue to possess over its operations.

“You frequently hear horror stories of people buying companies and clipping them at the heels – we’re not about that. We’re about growth,” he says.

“We’re all about investing in the business and the story here, developing more products, and expanding the capability of this office to achieve more of its ambitions.

“Our corporate structure is divisionalised; we have a divisional managing director for the dental department, one for the hospital department and now one for the GP department.

“We’re all about empowering our managing directors to be specialists in their own areas, recognising that the language, markets and requirements in each sector can be quite different, and that preserving these specialist skills is key to our aims and ambitions as an organisation.”

Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic affected Agilio and Clarity as the NHS and other healthcare services were put to the test by increased hospital admissions and GP appointments, even as face-to-face consultations were massively scaled down.

According to board papers published by NHS England on March 25, GP practices were delivering 15 per cent more consultations in late January than at the same time in 2020, while requests via online consultation systems rose from around 250,000 to more than 550,000 per week between March 2020 and January 2021.

It also reported that 99 per cent of GP practices now have video consultation capability, as well as over 95 per cent having online consultation capability.[1]

Furthermore, according to data from the Royal College of GPs, around 71 per cent of GP consultations were conducted remotely by video or telephone, and 25 per cent were conducted face-to-face at the peak of the pandemic in 2020.

In addition, 70 per cent were conducted face-to-face and 25 per cent remotely during the same period in 2019.[2]

The Royal College of GPs concluded that GP practices have undergone a ‘technological revolution’ during the pandemic, one that Clarity played a part in.

“GP practices were part of the frontline, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic, and so the demand for our service increased to the highest it has ever been, just as the work for GP practices increased massively,” says Tim.

“And it’s been a privilege to support such vital work.

“We are like a hidden technology provider that delivers the plumbing and life support for a GP practice.

“It has been critical therefore that we have been there, doing our jobs, making sure our systems are working well and that GP practices are supported while doing their critically important jobs.

“It’s been beyond business as usual for us, making sure everything we’re doing is perfect. But I think we have, and are, doing a great job, and I am incredibly proud of the work our team has done during such adversity.”

From Agilio’s perspective, how Clarity handled the administrative flux of the pandemic only demonstrated further why it should look into acquiring the business.

Neil says: “There is no doubt how Clarity handled such a testing time gave us great reasoning to believe their proficiency and acquire them.

“It has a been incredibly difficult period for GP practices to manage, and for them to know they can rely on Clarity for excellent technology support, while abruptly working from home and providing supplementary tools at short notice as circumstances changed, only speaks volumes of the phenomenal job Clarity has done.

He continues: “What it made me realise was the strength in depth and resilience of the people within the business.

“Their products have been thoroughly tested through an unprecedented, difficult period.

“We were already convinced by the calibre of Clarity’s work pre-pandemic, but how they handled the pandemic has doubly confirmed this for us.”

From its previous days as The Sowerby Centre for Health Informatics in Newcastle, to a commercial leader in back-office healthcare technology today, it is great to see a leading highly-skilled business looking to expand significantly while staying within the region.

Forget Thames Valley, or even Silicon Valley.

There’s room for leading high-tech healthcare innovation right here in the North East.

[1] https://www.gponline.com/gp-practices-delivering-1m-appointments-week-pre-pandemic-says-nhs-england/article/1711065
[2] https://www.rcgp.org.uk/about-us/news/2020/july/rcgp-survey-provides-snapshot-of-how-gp-care-is-accessed-in-latest-stages-of-pandemic.aspx