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CIO interview: Ian Cohen, CPIO, Acacium Group

Acacium’s chief product and information officer joined the healthcare specialist in the midst of the pandemic, and is responsible for data, product, business process and automation

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Ian Cohen, chief product and information officer (CPIO) at Acacium Group, picked an interesting time to take on his latest challenge. After technology leadership stints in a range of positions and sectors, Cohen joined the healthcare specialist in April last year – in the midst of the pandemic. 

“It was during lockdown, so I spent most of the first three months meeting the board, the investors, my colleagues and customers sitting in front of a 27-inch rectangle – and that’s weird, especially for someone like me who wants to get out, meet people and get a real feel for a business,” he says. 

Cohen joined Acacium, which offers managed services, digital therapies and specialist staffing to health and social care organisations and the life sciences industry, after three years with transport firm Addison Lee. Having formerly led technology organisations in the finance and media sectors, he relished the opportunity to take on a fresh challenge. 

“I was introduced to a CEO who has a genuine passion, which is reflected throughout the organisation,” he says. “Lots of companies talk about passion or purpose and throw them around like buzzwords, but here it’s real and tangible. That was a huge draw and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first 12 months, plus we’ve done some amazing things.”

Known as Independent Clinical Services until late last year, Acacium Group encompasses more than 20 brands that span areas as wide as recruitment services and digital therapies. It is a fast-growing business that was acquired by venture capital firm Onex last year.

Cohen sits on the executive board and reports to Acacium chief executive Mike Barnard. He is accountable both to the board and to Onex. Cohen says a big attraction of the role is the span of influence and accountability, which is similar to his previous job at Addison Lee, where he also ran product and technology. 

At Acacium, Cohen runs a division called technology and transformation, which is responsible for data, product, business process and automation, as well as the more traditional disciplines of applications, platforms, infrastructure and delivery services.

“We span digital product and data through to development and delivery, as well as business transformation,” he says. “This creates a holistic view of customer need and experience, which helps us work collaboratively with our commercial and clinical colleagues about what the product should be. Having the data science team as part of this division allows us to build and improve our offerings based on tangible analytics and insights that validate our ideas. 

“Development covers the stuff we build, the people we partner with, and the people to build our products. Then there’s process, so business process design, re-engineering and automation, as well as customer-facing chat bots. And finally, there’s the management of platforms, applications and infrastructure. So, as a division, we really do enable and underpin just about everything at Acacium Group.”

Delivering smart solutions to big challenges

Cohen says the company’s workforce has certainly been kept busy dealing with resourcing issues during the pandemic. As Acacium helps place doctors, nurses, specialists and researchers in job openings, as well as providing managed services, some of the company’s candidates have worked on everything from vaccine development in life sciences to mass testing and even healthcare delivery.  

Indeed, it was a collaboration between the company’s life science and nursing divisions alongside healthcare partner IQVIA that created a brand new Covid-testing operation. Both internal divisions and IQVIA recognised that they could draw on their specialist capabilities to meet the requirements for mass testing. 

“We literally created a testing business from scratch that has supported everything from the ONS [Office for National Statistics] to validate transmission rates through to solutions for sporting organisations, including the Premier League and English cricket, logistics, and large retail and distribution companies,” says Cohen. “This success then opens up even wider conversations about workplace health. 

“It’s been amazing to create new businesses at the intersection between different parts of the company. That process involves thinking about the organisation and our partners differently, and then coming together to say, ‘we can deliver that solution’. And inevitably, when it happens, it opens up other opportunities.” 

Working quickly and effectively 

Cohen says the de facto operating mode during the past 12 months has been to “get things done”. This need for speed means the pace at which the technology team creates digital solutions to the business’s challenges has increased exponentially.

He gives examples of how the speed of technological delivery has come to the fore, including the pace at which remote working was established and the pace at which the organisation was able to stand up new business models, including through Cohen’s own function.

“We stood up a whole vaccination facility in 11 days,” he says. “That includes workforce, identity, logistics, delivery services and data, both in terms of analytics and reporting. Normally, that would have taken nearly three months and would have had to go through endless steering committees and approvals.” 

“It has actually let a genie out of the bottle, but you can’t run in this mode for ever”

Ian Cohen, Acacium Group

Cohen says such achievements have been common across the CIO community during the past 12 months, with tech chiefs held in higher regard now than ever before. Yet while the benefits of this shift in perception are clear, there are also consequences – expectations might need to be reset going forward. 

“It has actually let a genie out of the bottle, but you can’t run in this mode for ever,” he says. “You can deliver like this for a period and then you have to go back to doing things with a bit more control and structure and process. 

“The double-edged sword has been that our ability to cope during this period has probably created an expectation that technology functions can always work at this speed, which they can’t. But what we have all learnt is that they can certainly go faster than they used to.”

Helping the business to exploit its data 

As well as supporting business colleagues at Acacium as they made crucial decisions rapidly during the past 12 months, the technology team has also helped the company embrace data, says Cohen. On joining Acacium last April, he quickly recognised how the organisation could further exploit its data assets to boost its operational performance. 

“We manipulate data in order to create outcomes – and those are people outcomes and health outcomes,” he says. “We use analytics and learning to place the right clinicians or the right nurses or the right researchers with the right organisations at the right times.” 

Cohen gives the example of digital therapies, where technology is helping to ensure that various forms of care and provision that used to happen in a clinical setting can now take place online. Such digital therapies mean Acacium can deliver care when people want to be seen – and not when the traditional clinical settings are open. In fact, the vast majority of interactions with the digital therapies service now take place outside the traditional 9am to 5pm five-day week. 

Another example: Acacium is the largest provider of diabetes prevention services in England though the National Diabetes Prevention Programme, which is a nine-month initiative to help boost patient health, with over 75% completion rates. The programme provides vital support to patients with type 2 diabetes and Acacium is only paid on the quality of outcomes it delivers. 

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“With analytics, we can see whether someone is likely to complete a programme,” he says. “That allows you to create tailored interventions for those individuals that you could never do otherwise. And in diabetes prevention, that is really important.”

Cohen says the provision of these digital models, and others like them, is essentially about one core success factor – creating a channel for care that is tailored, intimate, flexible and which operates outside the traditional waiting-room and waiting-list experience. 

“When I talk about our products, you’ll always catch me talking about ‘experience’ because that’s really what defines our offerings,” he says. “This is about engaging on an emotional level and that’s why we are always challenging ourselves to make the experiences that we offer better for the people who use our digital products. 

“We’ve learnt how to unlock data and act on it at speed, avoiding those deadly analysis/paralysis loops. I think we’ve also learned what insights are needed so that you can make the right decisions, whether that’s to test and learn, to iterate products or to intervene in a real-world situation.”

Working with passion and purpose 

Cohen reflects on the challenges his team has helped the rest of the business to overcome over the past 12 months and says that, in many ways, the pace of change is reminiscent of his earlier IT leadership stints at media giants Associated Newspapers and the Financial Times.

“If you’ve ever worked on a news floor, you’ll know that there’s almost a background hum of people collectively focused on getting stuff done,” he says. “Then there are other offices that reflect a more traditional administrative experience. It’s very clear that we are the former here at Acacium.” 

Cohen acknowledges that a cynic might say it’s easy for people to work with passion and purpose in a healthcare company during a pandemic. However, he says the company’s diverse and committed workforce delivers results time and again – and he hopes the lessons his organisation has learnt about data-led outcomes will pay dividends in the post-Covid age.

“There are things that we’re doing in areas like adult mental health, where over 3,000 individuals are enrolled in a digital programme, and when you talk to the people who deliver those services, they talk about it with such passion and commitment and such zeal and enthusiasm that their sense of collective purpose is palpable,” he says.

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