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Tue, Sep 21, 2010
The Straits Times

He is planning operations in untapped markets

By Francis Chan

In the first of a six-part, fortnightly series sponsored by enterprise development agency Spring Singapore, Francis Chan and Dhruv Velloor look at how local firms can become leaders in the fast-growing health-care sector

PIONEERING liver surgeon Tan Kai Chah is tackling new frontiers – this time by driving his newly listed medical company into untapped new markets.

Dr Tan, executive chairman of the Asian Centre for Liver Diseases and Transplantation (ACLDT), has just opened the firm's first satellite clinic outside Singapore in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The firm aims to confront the rising incidence of liver disease regionwide by taking its expertise to the rest of South-east Asia, and farther afield to China, India and Sri Lanka.

But Dr Tan, 56, also plans to develop new capabilities within ACLDT so it can venture into new areas in health care.

These include consolidating relevant tissue, blood and serum samples in a bank to support clinical research, and creating an Internet-based consultancy platform he calls e-medicine.

"We feel that in the next 10 years, we have a real first-mover advantage over anybody else," said Dr Tan.

The renowned liver transplant surgeon – better known as KC among peers and patients – operated on the liver of the world's first heart-liver transplant patient in 1990.

The Malaysian-born surgeon also gained celebrity status in 2002 when he performed a life-saving liver transplant on local TV personality Andrea De Cruz.

He continues to break new ground, both as a world-class physician and entrepreneur.

Since returning to the region after a long stint at the liver centre at King's College London, Dr Tan has managed to build up a successful private practice.

Set up in 1994, ACLDT conducts about about 30 liver transplants annually, with each operation costing an average of about $300,000.

The Singapore-based firm is now a fast-growing regional medical group that was listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in September last year.

Net profit for the six months ending Feb 28 was just over $1 million, while revenue for the same period grew by 26 per cent to $9.5 million, mainly owing to an increase in its pool of overseas patients.

The move to go public, said Dr Tan, was to help accelerate the growth of ACLDT, which is now headquartered at Singapore's Gleneagles Hospital.

"The reason we went public was because we wanted to recruit more talent, corporatise our company and expand regionally," said Dr Tan.

He said the prevalence of liver disease in the region means the number of patients in need of treatment will unfortunately increase.

More than 95 per cent of the 8,000 patients ACLDT sees in a year come from abroad. Of that, more than half are from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Despite the influx of patients from overseas, Dr Tan said it was important for ACLDT to have a presence, in the form of "satellite clinics", in various markets.

"Once patients with liver disease or liver cancer have seen you, and put their trust in you, they will come down for their treatment," said Dr Tan.

"But if they have not seen you, the human touch, the face-to-face time is not there... So at this moment in time, our aim is mainly to expand outreach to the capital cities in the region."

As proof that he walks the talk and is serious about making the connection with patients, ACLDT last Saturday launched its first satellite clinic outside of Singapore in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Asian Liver Centre, Vietnam (ALCVN), as the unit is called, is a joint venture with Vietnamese firm Hoa Lam Investment Development Corp.

About $1 million has been injected into the joint venture, with ACLDT holding a 70 per cent stake in the clinic in Vietnam, with the rest being held by Hoa Lam.

ALCVN will provide screening and consultation services, but surgery and transplants will still be performed here.

The new centre, said Dr Tan, is the first of many similar operations that ACLDT plans to set up in the region.

The firm's next stop is Jakarta, where its second satellite clinic will be set up in March, followed by possible sites in Manila, Johor's Iskandar Malaysia and even Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar.

Establishing a wide network of satellite clinics is also essential for ACLDT to move into tissue, serum and blood banking for research and other clinical studies.

"For example, when we see a patient in Dhaka or Ho Chi Minh City with liver problems, we can take blood samples with their permission, to store them for research work," said Dr Tan.

He said talks are under way with research and drug firms about the initiative, which could prove to be an added revenue stream for ACLDT once its network of satellite clinics hits critical mass.

But what could be another real game-changer for the firm in the next five to 10 years, is e-medicine – an Internet-based network on which Dr Tan is collaborating with an American institute.

"We are looking at long-distance real- time consultation... although this all depends on broadband," he said.

"So once we have formed these satellite clinics... it would put us really in the forefront, where we can look at X-rays, test results and even patients abroad in real-time, and even monitor these patients when they are sick and warded."

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