Ewan Davis, 1955-2024

Ewan Davis, one of the most original and influential thinkers in UK health IT, particularly on primary care and open platforms, passed away suddenly last month.

His many industry friends and former colleagues spoke of his remarkable kindness and generosity, helping many begin and develop their careers in the sector, and described him as a great friend who will be greatly missed.

His was a remarkable career that encompassed founding what became Meditel, later AAH Meditel, to become one of the leading primary care IT suppliers; playing an influential role in the National Programme for IT in the early 2000s; and then going on to become an international thought leader among those seeking to address the challenges of meaningful health interoperability through open platforms.

“He’s been hugely practically influential; he’s done a lot of stuff. But what really stood out was his kindness and I’m discovering just how many people he helped out,” said friend and colleague Dr Ian McNicol.

“Ewan would say ‘I’ll give you everything I know, 90% will be bullshit and 10% will be gold. The problem is I don’t know which is which’.”

Ewan was also a great friend to Digital Health, bringing his insight and expertise to the board as a non-executive, this despite confidently predicting the end of trade shows like Rewired for the past decade.

“He was more of a mentor than a boss. He would always lead from the front and from the heart, with a conviction that everything we did should be for the greater good,” said Prof Michael Bainbridge, friend and Meditel colleague, speaking from Sydney.

“Ewan was the best boss you could ever have a beer with”, he added. Warm memories of spending time with Ewan in a pub putting the world to rights over a few beers was a common theme of tributes on Linkedin.

Ewan was born 7 May 1955 to modest means in Hammersmith Hospital, London, the son of Jenny and Wally, who moved to Derbyshire when Ewan was just six months old. His father Wally, a life-long trade-unionist who rose to the national executive of the Medical Practitioners Union and later set-up BOMPA (Bureau of Medical Practitioner Affairs), a left-leaning think tank and publisher, was a massive influence.

The family later relocated to the Midlands, but after a visit back to London as a four-year-old, Ewan built a complex replica with pulleys and developed a life-long obsession with Tube trains. An obsession passed on to his daughter Iona. Ewan later became an enthusiastic adopter of Boris Bikes in London, often showing up to meetings in a hi-vis vest and bike helmet.

Ewan attended Birmingham University, studying physics, in between organising rent strikes and learning to code (not part of his course). In 1974, he and a couple of friends organised a party where they invited 500 women from Mason Hall but neglected to invite any other guys. One of the guests was his future wife, Alison.

After Birmingham Ewan worked for Shelter, the Department of Employment, and did a spell on Beacon Radio and wrote a column for the Sandwell Mail.

He eventually joined BOMPA. This early experience provided Ewan with a deep insight into what made GPs tick, which was to serve him well throughout his career.

Then in 1981, encouraged by Wally, Ewan launched Meditel, one of the first primary care information systems. Along the way, Ewan later recalled, he “discovered GP computing and spent much time trying to raise money for a mad scheme to give GP free computers in return for anonymised patient data and make himself fabulously rich”.

The company came very close to failing, but after securing investment AAH Meditel was established. By 1989, it had 1000 practices and the company had grown from eight to 250 people.

Ewan married Alison, by now a consultant clinical psychologist, in 1985; their first child Silas arrived the same year, followed by Iona in 1989.

Ewan rose to prominence as part of the tight-knit band of innovators, including the likes of Dr David Stables, Dr Peter Sowerby, Tim Benson and Dr Mike Robinson, who blazed a path in the incredibly creative blossoming of primary care IT in the 80’s and early 90s. A period that saw remarkable progress in GP computing.

Crucially, Ewan also played a huge role in getting people involved, who would later go on to become leading lights in the field, like Dr Mike Bainbridge, Dr Nick Booth and Dr Glyn Hayes. He also become a chair and leading figure of the British Computer Society’s Primary Health Care Specialist Group (PHCSG).

It was an era in which there was close co-operation between ostensible competitors in primary care IT systems, companies now largely consigned to history, including Vamp, AAH Meditel and EMIS. Ewan was part of that era of consolidation, leading the sale of AAH Meditel to Torex in 1999, itself later acquired by the then bright hope of UK health IT, iSoft, in 2003.

After AAH Meditel Ewan, moved to consulting, recalling in a 2014 biographic note, “Alison had set up Woodcote Consulting and she allowed Ewan to join as junior partner, and this is where he remains today“.

Ewan later tried to be a positive influence, informing the NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT) juggernaut from within BT.

Dr Nick Booth, a friend and colleague, remembers that at the BT job interview, involving the top boss, they didn’t get past the first question as Ewan gave such a detailed and insightful response.

The years following NPfIT proved a particularly creative new chapter, in which Ewan became one of the founders of the NHS Open Source programme, Code4Health, with Peter Coates and other.

Although the formal Code4Health didn’t last long, it proved extremely influential. Peter recalls that Apperta, the name for the successor organisation, was coined in Ewan’s kitchen late in the evening of his sixtieth birthday party.

In 2012 Ewan set up HANDI with Iona and others as a not-for-profit company to support health and care app developers. He also became an active early member of the NHS Hackday community.

Dr Marcus Baw recalls first encountering Ewan. “He was a real mentor to me. I met him at the second NHS Hackday in Liverpool in 2012 and immediately formed OpenGPSoc [an initiative advocating for an open GP system] immediately afterwards.”

Dr Wai Keong Wong, meanwhile, said: I think Ewan will be most remembered as the ultimate connector of people. His generosity, enthusiasm and curiosity knew no bounds. Our field, our community, have lost one of its shining stars but his spirit will no doubt live on within many of us.”

Fast forward a few years and Ewan had decided that the key was to focus on open platforms. With friend and colleague Dr Ian McNicol he founded Inidus, a start-up focused on developing open platforms and interoperability across health. Ultimately, they found they were just a bit too old for the profile investors were looking for, but had fun as the oldest hipsters in the London start-up scene.

“We were too early and too old,” said Ian. “The old guys amongst all these kids.”

But though Inidus failed to achieve its goals, the ideas behind it – that only through truly open platforms can the knotty challenges of interoperability and citizen-centred care be achieved – have proved enduring.

One of Ewan’s most lasting contributions was writing ‘Defining an Open Platform’, which provided a literal blueprint for OpenEHR and FHIR and SNOMED, adopted by countries and regions like Catalonia, and which has informed the London shared records programme.

As well as addressing interoperability problems, by moving to open platforms it becomes possible to have truly co-produced health records, “Once you’ve gone down open platforms you open up the potential for patients to be invited in as fellow professionals,” said Ian.

Peter remembers Ewan saying of his work on open platforms, “The stuff that we are doing here on open platform I won’t see the benefit of in my lifetime, but hopefully my kids will.”

Ewan is survived by his wife Alison, his children Silas and Iona, and grand-daughters Fallon and Athena, who he dearly loved and spent a lot of time with, in Ibiza.

The family has set up a memorial fundraiser for Medicins Sans Frontiers.