Technology and Canadian health care don’t always mix well. That’s what Huda Idrees found when she launched her startup.
Ms. Idrees is the founder and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Dot Health, a platform on which Canadians can access their own health records. “We create a way for you to look at all of your own hospital information or your own clinic information on your phone or on a computer,” she says.
Data can be hard to get, however. “Access to it can be completely blocked off because of arcane processes. Health care is the slowest of all the major industries to adopt technology of any kind.”
Ms. Idrees grew up in Saudi Arabia and came to Canada to attend university. She earned an engineering degree and then jumped into the technology universe.
She was interviewed for I’ll Go First, a new podcast series about entrepreneurs produced by The Globe and Mail.
What can Dot Health do for a patient?
The biggest use case for us is typically people managing their family’s health information. Earlier this year over 5,000 kids were suspended from school because their parents couldn’t find their little yellow vaccination cards. It’s difficult for families to keep track of everything.
How did you get your start?
I didn’t start in the health-care field – I went to school for engineering. So jumping into this concept of Dot Health was a bit naive on my side. I thought, ‘Well, I know how to build things that people use. I know how to make them super seamless, and I know how to engage people. How can this improve health care?’
When I first stumbled onto this concept of Dot Health I was building it for one person. It was my friend’s dad. He had been diagnosed with late-stage cancer and he was having trouble trying to keep up with everything the doctors were throwing at him. He was going through chemotherapy, and there was no way for him to see whether it was working or not.
And so using a very bare-bones version of Dot Health, I showed him a trend line and it showed his cancer-marker progress week over week. He wanted to share this graph that we built for him with his doctor. I imagined that health-care systems would have this already – a way for patients and doctors to be able to see the same thing. Lo and behold that’s not true at all. If patients are lucky they get a printout, or if the patient is super motivated to go to another doctor for a second opinion, then they need to go down to some basement and ask for their own health records, stand in line, fill out a form, and then they get it in the mail three weeks later. It’s a very paper-based process that’s quite manual and quite difficult to access.
Did you always know you wanted to start your own company?
The starting-your-own-company bit was sort of a backdrop to my life. My dad is a successful engineering entrepreneur as well. He took a giant risk and it turned out really well for him.
I ran my own Web services company when I was a kid. I got into programming, and then when I was 12 I realized people would pay me if I made websites for them. And so I did, and then I hired another person and it was like these two like little kids making websites for a bunch of businesses in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. So I knew that there was something there. I liked the concept of being the master of your own destiny.
You also worked at Google and Wattpad.
I got an internship in design at Google in their Mountain View headquarters [in California]. It was exciting. I mean Google’s cool now, but it was very cool then.
Then I saw Wattpad’s job posting, and that was the only thing that I applied to. I met with Allen [Lau], who’s the CEO and one of the founders, and pitched him this idea of becoming his first design hire. He agreed.
You’re one of six children. Tell us about your childhood.
Saudi is a sort of sprawling desert land that needs a lot of development. It’s very difficult to know much about it because they’re so closed off. But growing up there I really loved it. Jeddah is still one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s very different from Toronto but also very similar. There’s lots of people from lots of different backgrounds that call Jeddah home. I went to international schools, where there were kids from all over the world.
My siblings and I got up to a lot of mischief, but also ran a lot of random little businesses. I remember one of our family friends got us these Japanese origami books and we made little origami jewellery and sold it to the girls in our class when I was like 6. Our dad would help us along and tell us how to do basic bookkeeping and basic invoicing.
You’re a woman and you’re a person of colour in the tech industry, which isn’t that diverse. What has that been like?
I remember being at an event where I thought, ‘You know it doesn’t matter. It’s a meritocracy.’ That’s a myth, I know that now. People of colour, even in a city like Toronto, they’re discriminated against in a big way. Sometimes in blatant, obvious ways, and sometimes in some form of unconscious bias in hiring.
Fundraising for Dot Health was interesting. That’s when I could really tell that there was a difference between me and, you know, Joe Schmoe doing fundraising. Often I would walk into a room of only men. I’m a sole founder, so I was fundraising on my own. We’re also a female-majority company. When I would put that up onto the team page, there were two kinds of investors; one would ask me if I was trying to make a political point by hiring females, and others thought that it was really refreshing to see.
Needless to say, we did not take money from people who would question whether our female CTO [chief technology officer] was qualified enough.
Do you ever feel tired that you continually have to advocate for other women and other people of colour?
Absolutely. There are some days where I just want to talk about a digital health-care platform. I don’t want to talk about how I’m a woman of colour in a digital health-care company. I just run a digital health-care company.
But then there are events or people that really touch you, and that kind of makes it worthwhile. I remember I was one of the judges at Sandbox, an event run by the DMZ [a Ryerson University business incubator in Toronto], and they run a lot of kid camps. At one event it was a bunch of six- to eight-year-olds. One little girl wore a little pull-on headscarf, and she would stand next to me during breaks. I asked her name, and she said, ‘You know, I’m from Saudi Arabia, too.’ I was like, everything is worth it.
You work long hours. How do you avoid burnout?
It’s tough. I’m not good at it. I haven’t met anyone who has it down pat yet. That said, I don’t have kids. I’m not married. I don’t have to worry about scheduling in the same way that maybe my dad did when he was starting his company and he had five kids and was responsible for their lives. That makes it a bit easier. But there were times when I haven’t fulfilled personal commitments because of work. I’ve forgotten or not been able to make it to friends' weddings. I wish that I could be better.
What do you do for fun?
I skydive. Because free fall is the best feeling. It is so liberating. Imagine you’re coming out of a plane and you’re not being held back by a parachute. Your body is essentially hurtling toward the Earth.
How many skydives have you done?
I’m at 67 now. I have my solo licence, which means I can travel around the world and skydive. It’s very addictive. Skydiving feels like this massive leap of faith, where you’re trusting very minimal equipment. You’re also sort of alone in that pursuit, which is very similar to being a startup CEO. It’s a very lonely job in a lot of ways, and it requires a lot of trust in what you have – in your team and the market and your investors. In a lot more ways than one, skydiving is a metaphor for my life.
The Globe and Mail
This interview has been edited and condensed.
About Dot Health
In business since: February of 2017.
Revenue: Not available.
Over their lifetimes most Canadians will receive health-care services from various providers, including family doctors, hospitals, medical laboratories and dentists. Keeping track of test results, treatment plans and medical history can be difficult.
Dot Health, a Toronto startup, has built an online platform that gives Canadians secure access to their health records. The service, which is free for individual users, gathers records from health-care providers with the patient’s permission and aggregates all this information in the cloud. Families that sign up as a group pay a monthly subscription fee, as do companies that want to give their clients or employees access to the Dot Health platform.
Through an app, users can review their information and share it with other providers. The app also presents information in graphic charts that show patterns and progression of health indicators such as blood pressure or cholesterol levels, says Huda Idrees, founder and chief executive officer.
She declined to say how many Canadians have signed on to Dot Health, but says the number of users grew by about 1,150 per cent over the past year and a half. Dot Health’s network of health-care providers willing to provide health records as requested by their patients has also grown to about 1,300 health institutions.
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