Healthcare in the UK is an emotive and highly politicised subject.
From waiting times for ‘non-urgent’ surgeries to difficulties in making GP appointments and concerns over how quickly ambulances can respond to emergencies, most people are affected by the state of the National Health Service. This was the case even before COVID triggered an unprecedented backlog in secondary care.
The NHS is the pride and joy of Britain – but it is also creaking at the seams. “We know the NHS is really struggling, and therefore for those who can afford it, getting services from the private healthcare sector is going to increase,” Ben Kent, interim CEO at Doctor Care Anywhere, tells BusinessCloud.
“That’s where we feel there’s an opportunity for us – but also an opportunity to solve unmet needs [by taking some of the strain away from the NHS and improving the patient journey].”
Doctor Care Anywhere – which featured on our HealthTech 50 ranking this year – is one of the UK’s largest private providers of telehealth services. It offers online GP and ANP (Advanced Nurse Practitioner) appointments to the clients of insurers and healthcare providers such as AXA Health and Nuffield Health, as well as directly to the employees of corporate customers including Meta and Oracle.
Founded in 2013 and now trusted by 1,500 companies, it provides its services to over a million patients, while around three million people across the UK already have access to the service if needed. AXA has been a key customer since 2015, a relationship which was extended in 2020 via a joint venture agreement to manage diagnostic pathways for AXA members.
Kent says that employers use these workplace benefits packages to attract and retain employees, as well as keep them well and productive. “Both the employee and the employer understand the convenience of a virtual consultation,” he says. “Doctor Care Anywhere’s management of onward diagnostic referrals also saves money for the health insurer: we’d like to think that everybody’s a winner.”
He explains a potential pathway through the service from the moment a patient accesses the app. “First of all, they answer a series of questions about their symptoms, because we need to apply guardrails: for example, do they need to go to A&E because they have a breathing problem? Or Should they see their NHS GP face to face?
“If they pass through our guardrails we know our service is suitable for them. Further questions allow us to guide them as to whether they should see a GP for 20 minutes or 15 minutes, or an ANP for 20 minutes; that navigation happens in an automated way, but ultimately the patient can choose the option they believe is the best for them.”
Following the virtual consultation, DCA may provide an e-prescription; arrange a diagnostic test, with the results provided in the cloud when available; and arrange for a specialist to review the results and provide advice and guidance to the GP on next steps; while all the information is stored in the patient’s online record.
Kent offers an analogy: “There’s a parallel with banking, where the number of bank branches is dropping, but there are alternative ways in which the customer can access the service. In healthcare, a GP can deliver a service in the community when required, but that can be augmented by, for example, a virtual follow-up [through our service], where all the information, notes, reports and scans are shared in the cloud and also available to the patient.
“I think that mix between physical and virtual interaction will continue – and we can enable that.”
Kent began his career in investment banking then moved into senior finance roles before entering the health sector in 2005. He spent more than seven years at Bupa, part of that time as finance director for its international businesses, which he says gave him a first-hand view on health systems in a variety of global markets and cultures.
He would join Doctor Care Anywhere as COO and CFO in 2020, leading the company to a listing Down Under. “The Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) was particularly interested in health technology players, and had investors who were keen to invest in that space,” he reflects.
“The market has changed since then – valuations around the world have fallen – but at that point in time, COVID was absolutely sending the signal that the move to digital across a number of industries – and in particular health – was going to be strong and long-lasting. It was a powerful boost to valuations and the availability of capital.”
As with many PLCs, DCA’s share price has fallen. “You’ve seen how much the market changed in 2021 and 2022,” Kent tells me. “My hope would be that heading into 2024, conditions improve – but it’s still a tough market to raise funds, whether you’re a private or public company.”
New operating model
Kent left the business in 2021 to work in a variety of HealthTechs before returning as interim chief executive in February this year and helping to oversee a fundamental extension to its offering. “In August 2022, the chairman of the business had to stand up in front of investors and say, ‘our platform is not as stable as we want it to be, and we’ve got such fantastic demand from our customers that we are struggling to create the capacity to meet it’. We only offered GP appointments at that stage.
“Since then, the team has made fantastic progress in getting the platform stable – it’s been running really smoothly for the past year – and we introduced ANPs into our workforce in June.
“It’s a different operating model and means that we’ve got much more capacity, managing a demand that is significantly higher than before. So both those problems are solved.”
On plans for the remainder of the year and beyond, Kent says: “We’ve said to investors that we are aiming to get to EBITDA positive in the first quarter of 2024 and don’t expect to have to raise funds to achieve that goal.
“Our focus is on the UK market: there is so much opportunity here and it’s the market we know the best. We want to absolutely make the most of the AXA relationship, but also build other relationships and continue to sell to healthcare providers and corporates directly.
“We see lots of opportunities for growth – and that’s my priority in the months and years to come.”