How an award-winning Māori tech company solves healthcare issues

In seeking to improve the healthcare experience, Emergency Q also sought to be a genuine Māori tech business in its values and how it delivered and created its solution.

emergency q team
Emergency Q

Emergency Q founder Morris Pita has a dual vision: to help solve the problem of emergency departments being overwhelmed with patients, and to build a genuine Māori tech company.

His ambition is being realised, with the company winning two Hi Tech Awards in 2020: Callaghan Innovation Hi Tech Māori company of the year and Kiwibank Most Innovative Hi Tech Services. It is the third time the company has won, having taken out the public good category in 2018, when it was still in its infancy.

What is Emergency Q?

Emergency Q is designed to ease congestion at hospital emergency departments by showing patients, via a screen in the waiting room or on a mobile app, how long they can expect to wait to be seen. It also helps patients decide if they should seek help from a primary care provider if their complaint isn’t a major emergency.

Pita, who has no medical or technical background, came up with the idea when his son fell ill during a weekend and he took him to local hospital. He says while the service he received was fantastic, the wait to be seen was long and he realised that there were other care providers who could have dealt with his son’s complaints. The next day he went online to find an app that would help people find appropriate healthcare, and after not finding any, he set about creating the solution himself.

Emergency Q employs around 12 people, with six full-time staff including Pita, an emergency department nurse and four developers, plus the others as contractors. It is funded by healthcare providers and is currently present in six emergency departments and 12 urgent care clinics in the North Island. District health boards that offer Emergency Q include Northland, Waitemata, Counties Manukau, Waikato and the Hawke’s Bay. Results to date show up to 14 per cent reduction of total emergency department volumes per year.

It’s a bootstrapped business but Pita says that he may consider venture capital in future. He had been working with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise on exporting the platform to Germany and Singapore, when COVID-19 struck. The team quickly pivoted to provide advice about the pandemic via the app, which includes everything from what COVID-19 testing stations are open, to how to cope if you lose your job. There are also links to mental health services, which enable people to talk to a counsellor via the app.

The technology in the front end is Angular, and the back end is Node.js; the cloud-based platform ‘lives’ in Amazon Web Services. The software is designed to service different stakeholders—emergency department nurses, urgent care clinics, patients—which each have distinct needs. “A lot of people think Emergency Q is just a mobile app, but that is just a small portion of what we do,” Pita says.

The digital displays in the waiting rooms support seven languages, including te reo Māori. While the experience of working with multiple languages will be useful when the company activates its plans to move into Germany and Singapore after the COVID-19 pandemic, Pita says it will be more important to understand their environment.

“The thing we expect to do when we move into those markets is listen to their needs and what makes them unique. It won’t be a cookie cutter approach. Every health system has similarities but also special characteristics. Something we will look to do is to make sure that we reflect the culture, the processes and the systems on the ground within those countries, both in terms of their health sector and their wider society,” he says.

On being a Māori tech company

“We’re a Māori tech company. Māori-owned and -operated. Half our technical team are Māori, one is from Ngāti Raukawa and one from Te Whānau ā Apanui. And myself, as founder, is from Ngātiwai,” Pita says.

“My vision was to build not only a company that could solve this particular problem within our emergency departments, or help contribute to solving it, my vision was also to build a company that would be a genuine Māori tech business, in that our values and the way that we delivered and created that solution would also be Māori.”

“Something we put a huge amount of emphasis on is our relationships. … It’s not necessarily uniquely a Māori thing, but it is certainly significantly important in our culture to really look after the people who are trusting us. We put a huge amount of time and thought into the needs of our stakeholders and our customers. We try and approach their needs and problems and turn them into our own and really take a genuinely long-term term view on how we can stand alongside them to help them and the people they are serving.”

At Emergency Q, they start every team meeting with a karakia, and they welcome manuhiri, or visitors, with a mihi. “For instance, when we had our Australian auditor come in to do the ISO 27001 audit, which is the information management global standard, we welcomed him with a mihi and he thought it was fantastic,” Pita says, adding that it is rare for people to find this approach in the tech sector.

emergency q team Emergency Q

The Emergency Q staff as of May 2020. From left to right: Jayson Jury, Tyson Eruera, Hannah Furse, John Zhao, and Morris Pita. Absent: Callum Morris.

Pita is proactive about finding opportunities for Māori to get into the “technology side of the technology business”, noting that “software can be a very hard industry to get your first job in.”

“I think you get better products when you have a wider range of views. Your products ultimately are being used by real people and if the team that is designing and building these products reflects the real people that you’re are designing them for, I think you’ve got a better chance of coming up with solutions that are going to stand the test of time,” Pita says.

Pita notes the role that entrepreneurs such as Ian Taylor (at Animation Research) and Grant and Merrin Straker (at Straker Translations) have played in creating a path for Māori in the tech sector. “They’ve really forged the way and provide massive inspiration, and importantly evidence, for smaller companies like ours that are beginning to emerge, that this is not only a space where Māori can participate, but actually lead and succeed.”

Emergency Q is Pita’s first experience of working in technology and he has noticed a “genuine collegiality” throughout the sector. “It’s actually the generosity and the sense of whanaungatanga or relatedness between one another. If you ring up another tech CEO and ask them for some thoughts or for coffee, the normal answer is ‘Of course, let’s find some time’. Not all industries work like that.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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