Delivering personalised care to cancer patients

Dr Tay Miah Hiang and Dr Peter Ang, co-founders of OncoCare Medical, talk about the difficult early days of their business and how it has managed to grow substantially since then.

FOR suspected cancer patients, the wait for their test results - typically a week - can be excruciating.

While it is possible to generate results within a day and spare patients the prolonged uncertainty, they usually have to wait longer due to the "fixed system" in hospitals, says Dr Tay Miah Hiang, a senior specialist in medical oncology and co-founder of OncoCare Medical, which owns the OncoCare Cancer Centre chain.

"There is a set way of doing things there. If they say that your scan results take one week, you have to accept that," he explains. "Knowing this really changed my perspective on how care should be delivered to patients."

Dr Tay's desire to provide more efficient and personalised care prompted him to leave his job as a senior consultant at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) in 2007 and venture into private practice.

Dr Tay and his then-colleague at NCCS, Dr Peter Ang, founded OncoCare, a chain of oncology clinics that provides a range of services such as cancer diagnosis, genetic testing and treatment. The group has six clinics in Singapore, helmed by a team of 10 doctors who take on some 2,000 new cases yearly.

OncoCare is a first-time winner of the Enterprise 50 Award this year.

Dr Tay notes that running his own practice offers more flexibility to hasten the diagnosis and treatment process. There is also more leeway to help patients with financial constraints on a case-by-case basis. "We have colleagues who have actually waived their fees for the needy and we're very thankful for that."

At OncoCare, doctors are also able to provide more personalised care for patients - a gap in the public healthcare system that Dr Tay believes the group can address.

"Cancer is such a complex disease, it doesn't always present itself in the same way. People with cancer have probably heard many stories from friends and relatives, so I think they will really appreciate information from us that is specific to their case," he says.

Dr Ang adds: "Hospitals have their own challenges; they have to handle more cases (than we do) and aim to treat as many patients as efficiently as possible."

WORD-OF-MOUTH REFERRALS

With six branches in 11 years, OncoCare has been growing substantially. But the early days of the business were saddled with bank loans and "a lot of self-doubt", Dr Ang recalls.

The duo started out in a modest 920 sq ft space within Gleneagles Hospital in 2007, against a backdrop of established groups with clinics spanning 2,000 to 3,000 sq ft.

Dr Tay recalls: "We had so few patients then, we would come to work and wonder why we're so free. But we continued to work hard because if we could relieve one person of one sleepless night, we had done something well."

OncoCare eventually grew through word-of-mouth referrals from patients - a slow but ideal way to build up a strong foundation and brand reputation, says Dr Tay. "We let our results speak for us. When patients are referred to us, we make sure the patient is well taken care of. With good results and feedback, more patients will naturally come to us."

With limited resources for marketing efforts back then, the two doctors also relied on guidance and advice from senior doctors.

OncoCare currently occupies a combined space of approximately 11,000 sq ft and is able to administer outpatient chemotherapy for 50 patients at any one time.

CLOSE-KNIT TEAM

In areas of leadership and staff management, Dr Ang is confident that the group is on the right track. For example, doctors can inter-refer patients among themselves easily. "There's no internal competition, we work and support each other as a team. Our patients are comfortable seeing other doctors when their main doctor is not around," he points out.

According to Dr Tay, OncoCare also has a good employee retention record. "I'm proud that many of our staff have stayed with us for years, some for all 11 years. It shows that we are doing something right."

By nurturing a close-knit team, the group has also paved the way for more doctors to come onboard. An oncologist with a sub-specialisation in gynaecological cancer is one of two new doctors joining OncoCare in early 2019. Dr Tay says: "People love a team that is strong and have values that align with theirs. They trust that you can help them to grow."

FUTURE PLANS

From exploring new treatment methods and clinical equipment to staff re-training and employment, the group is actively looking for ways to expand and improve its services.

"We can't be like still water. Once we stay still, everything will just decay," says Dr Tay.

Dr Ang hopes to adopt more forms of supportive treatment in future, such as the use of scalp coolers which helps to combat hair loss during chemotherapy. He adds: "There are also big changes in technology for diagnostics that we're looking into, such as genetic molecular testing, which allows for easier and more efficient testing."

Treatments aside, the group is also looking to set up a psychosocial support team to provide cancer rehabilitation services.

Dr Tay says: "Not everything is about treatment. Now that patients are living longer and longer, we need to rehab them well too, so that they can assimilate back to their normal lives easily."

These efforts are a lead-up to OncoCare's long-term plan to expand across the region.

"We are working towards that but we're not in a rush. It's important to build a strong foundation first before we go regional," Dr Tay adds.