A Singapore healthcare firm is making the most of the medical tourism boom, setting up resorts, interactive e-clinics, call centres and its own TV channel. Pia Heikkila reports
Dr Wei Siang Yu is not short of ambition or, for that matter, words. In a car on his way to the airport, the Singapore-based entrepreneur talks with breathless enthusiasm about the global revolution in his field.
“Healthcare is not a business based on necessity or need any more. It has become a branded, consumer-centric business,” he says. “There is a new shift taking place and the medical sector has to follow by becoming truly scalable, digital and borderless.”
His flagship, FlyFreeForHealth.com, is a multimedia healthcare and lifestyle platform that enables consumers to put together health and lifestyle services with no geographic restrictions. “We call it medical tourism 2.0,” he says. “Consumers are served by medical butlers who help them to search for their preferred doctor option in different countries. The consumer can then interact with the doctor via an e-clinic live, or even procure a second opinion from another doctor.”
In Wei’s view, hospitals are not realising their full value because IT departments are run by tech people rather than business people.” Hospital managers seem to be alienated by the digital space and social media, concentrating on bricks and mortar instead. Health professionals and technology experts don’t communicate effectively,” he says.
Even the largest hospitals in southeast Asia have a market capitalisation of only $1bn-$2bn, which he says makes them undervalued. “They are tiny in comparison to their potential. The fastest way for these to grow would be to merge healthcare ICT and physical businesses and reorganise them into much larger healthcare providers.”
Wei has been working with digital healthcare platforms for nearly a decade. A medical doctor by training, he says he was among the first to spot the potential of technology and medical convergence. His first commercial venture was in Japan, where he developed an application that allowed women to design their diet,
skincare and fitness programme by listening to their hormonal cycles. “My aim was to digitalise bio- communication in which technology was harnessed to follow people’s natural body mechanics,” he says. He has also been working with SMS-based sex- education platforms.
His multimillion-dollar Borderless Healthcare Group invests in ICT, medical call centres, interactive health content development and medical resorts in addition to offering consumer-centric health services. Fuelled by lower-cost flights, increased personal mobility and global disparities in healthcare, the medical tourism market is growing at an annual rate of 20%, according to the World Health Organisation, which estimates it will be worth $180bn in the next few years. Borderless Collaborative Care utilises the convergence of technology and the development of new outreach services such as Wei’s medical butler.
In reality the butler is a nurse based in a call centre in the Philippines. Borderless Healthcare has two call centres (the other is in Indonesia), as well as access to other centres via its partners, creating a network of 1,500 medical professionals. The key, according to Wei, is to understand the Asian psyche. Asia has the most IT-savvy consumers in the world, he says, meaning people are very comfortable using interactive technology and are hungry for new applications.
The group is also hoping to tap into the chaotic healthcare sector in China and India. The potential to capitalise on privatisations in China is huge, and with a burgeoning middle classes and ageing hospitals, technology can help to speed up the reforms. In rapidly developing countries such as China, the bureaucracy over healthcare isn’t that impenetrable yet and there is a determined effort to implement e-healthcare. “We are hoping to get in before it all gets too top-heavy and are looking at various opportunities.”
In India, the group intends to launch mobile platform services within months. “We will try to utilise satellite services because India has been slow at adopting 3G technology,” says Wei.
Borderless Healthcare is not solely Asia-based and is aiming for a global presence. The company has partnered with a San Francisco-based pharmacy to set up a vitamins-on-demand platform. “Consumers can chat with a nutritionist online and a personalised formula will be sent to the robots in the pharmacy,” he says. “They then create a bottle for the consumer, who will receive it in the post.”
Wei also wants to go after the second- opinion market. “Doctor-shopping, where people seek several different medical opinions, is huge in Asia,” he says. “People will pay for a second opinion and are also happy to do it via web forums.”
At the moment, the group is in talks with free-to-air broadcasters over plans to set up an interactive health channel. “Our investment in call centres and cloud computing allows us to run the back- end technologies,” Wei says. The main driver of his business is the fact that there is a discrepancy between the way people consume services online and which consumer-facing technologies are available in healthcare.
“It’s further complicated by public policymakers who still believe in universal healthcare today. But this thinking no longer works – look at medical tourism. Healthcare has to be borderless and we need to harmonise and homogenise the whole industry,” he says.
Wei eventually wants to take his business public. With a group asset value of more than $65m and more than 10 divisions in various segments of the healthcare business – spanning ICT, media and real-estate development – the floatation of some of his businesses could happen in less than two years.
“What we are trying to do is to create a very powerful info-technology digital business in the world that can exist in the stock exchange. This is such an untapped sector that would cater for the world’s ageing population,” he says.