Tunstall’s CTO wants to build the Porsche 911 of telehealth

Gary Steen joined assistive technology provider Tunstall Healthcare as its group chief technology officer (CTO) in August 2021, having previously been managing director for technology at telecommunications provider TalkTalk.

The move was motivated by his desire to bring expertise across sectors, to work for a British technology company, and to fulfil his own social purpose amid the so-called Great Resignation. And as CTO, Steen’s mission was to bolster Tunstall Healthcare’s teams and talent, drive business speed and accessibility, and support Tunstall’s ambitious visions of future healthcare.

A technology strategy for distributed healthcare

Founded as a small television repair shop in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, Tunstall has evolved from offering warden intercom systems to telehealth services over its 65 years. Elderly people originally used Tunstall-Byers to summon help in an emergency by transmitting alarm calls over the public telephone network before Tunstall moved into telecare and telehealth in the early 2000s.

Today, the company is at the intersection of the health, housing and social care markets, employing 3,000 and supporting millions of people across 19 countries, from offering phones, alarms and communication systems to remote patient monitoring services.

With the firm now shipping approximately one million devices per year, and leveraging AI and data analytics capabilities to deliver cognitive care — so healthcare providers can better detect whether someone’s health is about to deteriorate — Steen sees a different kind of health and social care emerging.

Gary Steen

“With the pressures on the NHS and healthcare across the EU, it’s clear that the future is not everybody going to hospital to have care,” says Steen, who also sits on the Tunstall executive board. “It’s got to be a wider distributed healthcare system. Hospitals are going to be important in the future, but healthcare homes are going to be increasingly important too,” equating the move from hospitals to distributed healthcare as similar to information being held in libraries to being widely available on the Internet.

Such visions for the future are underway through the advent of telecare and telehealth, services which Tunstall offers. The company works with health, social care, retirement and housing providers to provide technology-enabled care solutions, allowing people to live independently at home or in residential or social care settings — including those living with dementia, as well as those with learning and physical disabilities.

So Steen has a critical role to play. As CTO, he is responsible for leading the innovation and development function worldwide, and for solutions and products developed out of Tunstall’s technology delivery centres in the UK, Sweden and Germany.

With an increasingly distributed technology team of 200 spread across Europe, he sees his role as equipping tech teams for future challenges, and linking technology strategy back to Tunstall’s products and services.

But it remains early days. When he joined the firm in August 2021, Steen’s 90 day-plan revolved around listening and learning from the different business units prior to developing a technology strategy, which outlined Tunstall’s direction of travel in three core areas: its products, the technology structure of the business, and how it would operationalise so products and services could be taken to market.

The Porsche 911 of healthcare

Steen sees his challenge at Tunstall akin to that of a famous sports car manufacturer.

“If you see an old [Porsche] 911, and then you see the new one, it’s still the same product,” he says, “but there’s not a single component in the car that’s the same after those 60 years.” He says the German manufacturer managed to transform yet keep the relevance of the product by changing the way they manufacture and build it.

In the case of Porsche, he says that the evolution saw it move away from manual labour and hand-chiseled parts through to robotics and just-in-time (JIT) components, whereas Tunstall’s story lies more in the use of automated testing, advances in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to spot and remedy patient issues, and in the advent of virtual care platforms, remote monitoring and data platforms.

“It’s the same thing we’re trying to reach at Tunstall,” he says. “Our products have evolved — we need to make sure our ways of producing them evolve as well.”

This technological innovation does present a challenge, though, not least with Tunstall Healthcare typically catering for the elderly and less technically literate.

“Ensuring we develop solutions for both the digitally enabled and those with less experience of technology is key in supporting a vulnerable and ageing population. If housing, health and social care work together with technology suppliers, we can invest in tech literacy and put citizens at the heart of decision-making and empower them to manage their own health.”

Teams and talent at Tunstall

Steen admits Tunstall will require more ‘architectural muscle’ to serve his technology strategy, and he’s started laying the foundation by recruiting a new chief architect in Tunstall’s software business. Talent issues remain, however, and he believes that CTOs must consider youth and experience.

“We need to balance both,” he says. “We need people with experience because we’ve got some longer technologies, and we need people who know this space. But I’m absolutely convinced we need to do some grassroots investments as well.”

Partnerships with the likes of Manchester-based North Coders and QA are helping to bring in new apprentices and entry-level staff, with Steen saying such schemes allow him to tap into new talent pools such as minority groups who may have done science, physics or math in higher education.

“We’ll just look for smart people who want to cross train into these technologies,” says Steen, who admits that the much-regaled Great Resignation has made it “increasingly tough” to hire.

The future is about growing capabilities, accessibility and resilience, and the margin for error is zero. He notes that while downtime at telco TalkTalk may be an inconvenience for video streaming or gamers, customers not being able to dial 999 can be life threatening.

“The tolerance for error on this is nil,” he says. “If somebody needs to press that button, or something needs to happen, I want to make sure that service works,” adding that agile methodologies need to be bulletproof. “The biggest challenge is how do you transform that capability at the same time as delivering new products across the top of it,” he says. “It’s the old analogy of trying to change the engine while doing 90 miles an hour.”

CIO, Technology Industry