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Reputational Currency Exchange

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media, April 22, 2008

The news that three Singapore hospitals joined a U.S.-based healthcare network is a study in the importance of reputation to global healthcare organizations. In this deal, three known players in global healthcare came together to share in the increased value of their collective brands.

On its surface, the agreement allows members and clients of South Carolina-based Companion Global Healthcare to access three ParkwayHealth-run hospitals in Singapore just as they would local, in-state hospitals. If I were a hospital executive in South Carolina, I’d sure take notice that about a million Blues plan members now have the option to get healthcare services—including joint replacement, open heart and cardiology surgery, and cancer treatment—at less than half the cost in the States, albeit half a world away.

Even though the medical travel industry is expected to see significant growth—some say it will reach $40 billion (US) by 2010—none of the people I talked to who have knowledge in this deal expects to see a surge of Americans booking trips to access care at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth, Gleneagles, or East Shore hospitals. In fact, these hospitals currently operate near capacity, says Tom Johnsrud, senior consultant in North America for ParkwayHealth, Singapore, and they don’t have plans to expand as a result of joining Companion’s network.

That’s not to say there won’t be joint marketing efforts by the Singapore Tourism Board and ParkwayHealth, and executives from Companion will be sure to highlight the network expansion when they meet with employers in South Carolina. But for now this arrangement is really about elevating the prominence of the three organizations involved.

For the Singapore Tourism Board, adding hospitals to a U.S.-based network is a significant milestone in the country’s quest to become the hub of healthcare in Asia. Companion’s network of international hospitals is a select group, so Singapore can consider inclusion as a testimonial of the quality of its healthcare system, one that is comparable to the U.S.—and comparable to its regional competition in Thailand.

Companion Global Health is still developing its network of international hospitals. At most, it will be a network of 10 to 15 healthcare organizations, says David Boucher, Companion’s assistant vice president of healthcare services. As it creates the network with medical travel in mind, Companion is trying to differentiate itself by setting quality standards, and making sure its hospitals have strategies for dealing with the needs of patients from different cultures, says Boucher. At the same time, Companion’s executives cannot anticipate the needs of all potential medical travelers, so it’s trying to be both deliberate and diverse as it adds hospitals from around the world. How well Companion does at creating a network that’s high value and high quality could make or break deals it has with employers.

For ParkwayHealth, getting its hospitals in this U.S.-based network advances the organization’s brand as global leader, says Johnsrud. “Like any overseas provider the U.S. market isn’t going to make or break any of them,” he says. “The majority of their patients are international patients … but if you can care for the U.S. patient then you can take care of anybody is the assumption.” Moreover, he says the deal with Companion gives ParkwayHealth exposure that it can use to leverage new deals in other regions. “It may give Parkway an opportunity to grow in other countries where they haven’t considered before,” he says.

While I wouldn’t recommend that Singapore Airlines add direct flights out of Charleston International as a result of this deal, the network expansion opens the possibility for Americans to travel to Singapore for medical care, and just that possibility alone is enough of a boon for the global healthcare organizations that put this arrangement together—for now.


Rick Johnson is senior online editor of HealthLeaders Media. He may be reached at rjohnson@healthleadersmedia.com.
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