This week, eHealth Insider publishes its 500th newsletter, a milestone that seemed barely conceivable when we started very nearly ten years ago.
Co-founder Linda Davidson and I had been working on the editorial team of a dotcom called Medexonline, but we realised there was a gap in the market for original health IT news, written for NHS readers and suppliers.
In setting up EHealth Media, the company behind EHI, our aim was to provide news that people would want to read; that was not afraid to report ‘insider’ stories accurately, but which also had a sense of fun.
So, working on slightly creaky laptops from two back bedrooms in South West London, we developed the first version of the website and newsletter. EHI was launched onto the unsuspecting world in December 2001.
Familiar features, like the newsletter editorial, were there from issue one. Then, as newsletter registrations grew steadily, we began to make a name by breaking stories that the nationals wanted to pick up.
A little NHS IT project
In that first issue, we reported on a visit that Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, had made to London. He spoke alongside then-health secretary Alan Milburn, who announced an extra £83m for NHS IT in 2002-03.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, it was a sign that something even bigger was brewing. Another straw in the wind came in April 2002, with the publication of Derek Wanless’ review for the Treasury of NHS future funding needs.
In a bid to make the NHS more efficient, Wanless called for a doubling of investment in NHS IT. We later learned that in February, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had chaired a No 10 summit at which an NHS IT programme was given the green light.
In our first 500 issues, we have followed all aspects of NHS IT and healthcare informatics.
We’ve written about servers, networks, PACS, GP systems and telehealth, laptops, mobiles and apps, rows about confidentiality, patient helplines, lost USB sticks, NHS reforms and NHS IT strategies real and merely promised.
But the story that has dominated our coverage has been the effort to digitise the health service through the multi-billion project that became the National Programme for IT in the NHS.
The huge interest in NPfIT helped to grow our audience. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know about the world’s biggest civilian IT programme.
By the time EHI celebrated its 100th issue in October 2003, we could announce that we had 6,000 registered readers. In the same year, we launched extremely popular forums that ran throughout the procurement phase of the programme.
While the forums helped to cement our early reputation as ‘the Private Eye of health IT’, we eventually decided we couldn’t risk the Eye’s legal bills.
In their place we introduced the popular reader comment tool, giving readers the chance to comment on news and features after moderation by ourselves.
The following year saw the launch of the eHealth Insider Jobs Board and sister title EHI Primary Care, which has provided in-depth coverage of GP and community IT thanks to Fiona Barr who, coincidentally, is handing on the editor’s green eyeshade this week.
2004 also saw us quit our back bedrooms for offices in Wandsworth. Further expansion necessitated a move to our present base in the old Royal Doulton building in Lambeth; just across the river from Parliament and with an unrivalled view of the Shard and the railway tracks into Waterloo.
2007 saw another new venture: our first solo industry awards ceremony, with the invaluable backing of long-term sponsor BT.
For all its immediacy, online news can be a little impersonal. The awards are a fantastic way to bring people together, learn about and celebrate innovation across the NHS, and meet the teams and individuals behind the projects.
Getting more intelligence
By 2008, EHI registrations had passed 22,000. We launched new market research reports, beginning with the highly successful E-Health 2.0 report. This research experience eventually led us to create a new division of the company – EHI Intelligence.
The EHI Intelligence team has spent has spent the best part of two years filing FoI requests, following them up, checking the information obtained against other sources, and building a user-friendly database of the main systems in use in NHS foundation trusts, English acute trusts, and now the entire NHS.
The database should be a valuable resource for both suppliers and NHS IT directors who want to see where business opportunities lie and to benchmark themselves against others, as NPfIT finally winds down.
We were there at the start and we were first with the news that health minister Simon Burns had decided to scrap the programme last year – while “honouring” its remaining local service provider contracts.
So it was a bit of a surprise to read in the Daily Mail that the government was to “axe” it all over again at the start of this month.
Nevertheless, we followed up with coverage of the “redacted” Cabinet Office report that prompted the announcement – and found that it was full of alarming basic errors, not least about the trusts involved and the state of the market. If the authors had been EHI readers, they’d have been spared a few blushes.
Or they could have come to one of our events. In November 2008, we ran our first industry conference and exhibition, Healthcare Interoperability, which got an extremely positive response.
That show has been followed by three EHI Live conferences and exhibitions, first at the ICC in Birmingham and now at the NEC in the same city.
This year’s event, which runs from 7-8 November, will feature a conference headed by the new head of NHS IT, Katie Davis - who is an EHI reader of longstanding - and an exhibition with more than 100 stands and a number of feature areas.
These include the new open source skunkworks, which we are developing in conjunction with Malcolm Newbury of Guildfoss Limited. The skunkworks will be an opportunity for the NHS to look beyond the world of Microsoft and its ilk, and to see what open source platforms have to offer.
Readers can post challenges and questions in advance and get them answered and demonstrated at the show. The first five also get an adorable soft-toy skunk out of the boxful that recently arrived at EHI Towers.
Our future plans include more research and events, more tightly integrated with EHI. We also want to make much better use of interactive social media to build a community around the website, which we redesigned with great success at the start of the year.
Visitors to EHI Live 2011 will get a first glimpse of the new groups functionality that we have been building to enable readers to hold debates about long-running news stories, to discuss technical topics of interest to them, and to find individuals with similar interests or much-needed expertise.
At its core, though, EHI is proud to be a media company, with a great news team and strong news values. We want to keep providing the best industry news service possible, and to find new ways to make sure that readers want to keep coming back for more.
You can measure just about everything online, but we know we’re getting it right when readers tell us, as they often do, “I look forward to reading the EHI newsletter”, “It’s the only newsletter I read every week” or “I always learn about things first on EHI.”
When we started out on issue one, we thought that the subject matter was rich with potential and interesting angles; we have never been short of news since.
Now we are at issue 500, it feels as though the possibilities of health IT and information are still growing. We got the bug really early on, and we still have it: e-health really does matter.
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