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Tue, Sep 21, 2010
The Straits Times
   

Keeping workplaces in the pink of health

By Dhruv Velloor
 

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

HOW do you bring the family doctor into your office?

Delivering good old-fashioned medicine to the workplace was a key goal of general practitioner (GP) Barry Thng when he started Alliance Healthcare, which arranges health coverage for individuals and organisations.

Alliance had humble beginnings. In 1994, Dr Thng, now 44, and five fellow practising physicians – all classmates and peers – set up a family clinic in Commonwealth Drive. Initially called Serene Family Clinic, it was later renamed My Family Clinic.

About a decade later, the six founders took the leap into corporate health care.

Dr Thng said the need to cut down on rising costs of group health-care cover motivated them to move in 2005 to become a group health vendor for employees in various companies.

He said: "I found that the concept of family medicine is equally applicable to managing health care. As a family physician, I feel like I am treating a family. It is similar for corporate health."

He added: "Many of these employees were also our private patients, and so we were motivated to develop an effective business solution for them."

Despite the similarities in the business, entering a new market with new competitors was not all sunshine.

Government agency Spring Singapore helped, but most of $2 million required to finance a health utilisation system – which measures the value of employee health claims against average regional data – came from company finances.

The system is meant to help employers guard against both exploitation of claims as well as overcharging by doctors.

Dr Thng told The Straits Times that the greatest obstacle for the company involved changing perceptions of businesses that needed corporate health cover – but which were reluctant to take on the cost of Alliance's services.

"Most companies wanted to see clear monetary gains from the services. Also, most saw expenditure on health-care services as a cost, not an investment. It is this mindset that is difficult to eradicate."

Alliance's first client was insurance giant AXA. Dr Thng believes Alliance's health expenditure monitoring system gave it a competitive edge, which convinced AXA that Alliance's services were suitable for the insurer's clients.

Sixteen years on, Alliance has come a long way, with seven more My Family Clinics operating in the HDB heartland. The company employs a little over 100 staff at its premises in Jurong East.

A move to a larger workplace is in the offing, as the current premises are too small to accommodate all its staff.

Aside from its own clinics, Alliance can draw upon an islandwide health network spanning 300 GP clinics and 100 specialist clinics, which collectively get about 500,000 visits a year.

Dr Thng estimates that Alliance, which competes with other managed health administrators such as MHC Asia, is the No. 3 independent medical administrator here with about 600 companies and 60,000 employees under its wing.

Turnover for the company was $8.2 million last year. Alliance has also started a wholesale pharmacy to assist its network of clinics.

Industry attitudes, which "do not change overnight", are also evolving and more companies view health-care cover as an important investment, Dr Thng said.

Despite its successes, Alliance said it has not changed in outlook.

The company has retained its ethos of providing employees with all the personalised care of a family GP, Dr Thng said.

It recently developed an IT platform where patients can view their health trends over time. They can access this service at home, and avert potential problems by following the health tips it offers.

Doctors can also view patient medical records, and are alerted whenever certain checks are due or have been missed.

This, combined with the health expenditure monitor, forms an integrated Health Management System – the backbone of Alliance's operations in managed health.

Dr Thng and his team at Alliance still have big goals. Plans are under way to expand its medical network into the rest of South-east Asia, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.

Alliance is working with health insurance companies such as Great Eastern to promote its health network at the workplace, and it aims to be listed on the stock market within five years.


For more information on how to grow your companies, visit http://www.spring.gov.sg or call 6278-6666.

 
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