It’s not always easy to access quality health care, no matter where you live. Even in major metropolitan areas across Asia, hospital services may be restricted to the heart of the nearest city or the business district.
Accessibility is thus an increasingly essential factor in building healthcare infrastructure. That’s why Dr Kelvin Loh, CEO of Columbia Asia Group, has made it a priority for the Group’s network of hospitals and clinics.
“Healthcare expenditure is growing rapidly,” says Kelvin. “The issue, however, is how do you best serve this growing demand? We need new thinking around the business model. That’s where I feel Columbia Asia fits in, because in the end what people want out of health care is quality, as well as affordability and accessibility."
“In many Asian cities, for example, it could take an hour or more to travel to the city centre. What if we could bring that affordable health care close to where they live and provide a good network for all population areas? It’s democratisation of health care.”
Across South-East Asia and India, Columbia Asia (a subsidiary of the Seattle-based Columbia Pacific Management) operates 28 hospitals and clinics, all erected since the Group built its first hospital in 1996.
This rate of construction is no mean feat, nor does it show any signs of abating, with a further seven hospital projects – both extensions and new constructions – in the pipeline. More impressively, these projects are completed in just 18 months, on average.
In Klang Valley, a region centred around Kuala Lumpur, Columbia Asia manages a network of seven hospitals. Each of these are situated in densely populated areas, rather than being limited to the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
With its services located across this wide region, the company has the capacity to offer healthcare services to a wide cross-section of the population.
“We are focused on the delivery of quality, affordable care, which is accessible and close to where people live,” Kelvin explains.
“We are focused on the delivery of quality, affordable care.”
“How do we do that? For one thing, we don’t deal in large hospitals. Instead, we build smaller, modular hospitals which hold 80 to 200 beds. We always put our hospitals in a population heartland; that is, where people live. For example, it might not be a central business district, but instead in a relatively densely populated suburb. We then build a cluster of hospitals in the area.”
Columbia Asia, one of the continent’s largest healthcare providers, is also one of the few multinational healthcare providers to construct its own hospitals. The resulting extensive network of relatively small hospitals has not only allowed the company to serve a larger range of the population but has also helped facilitate efficient administration and operations.
As Kelvin says, the company’s hospitals have a maximum of 200 beds, which means that, unlike most hospitals, Columbia Asia’s facilities don’t all need to be furnished with their own individual corporate office to manage the operation.
For all seven locations in the Klang Valley, for example, Columbia Asia operates a single headquarters to manage inventory, quality assurance and procurement. Whereas a larger, conventional hospital might have several disparate, isolated departments managing these issues, Columbia Asia’s operational side runs a more cohesive, integrated process.
Kelvin also believes the company’s structure enables better deals with suppliers. “Because of our exceptional scale, we can negotiate with our suppliers,” he says.
“It’s not just one hospital they’re supplying to, but many hospitals. That’s how we try to get it as cost-effective as possible. We would never compromise on quality, because that’s of absolute importance to us.
We’re clear in communicating to those suppliers that it’s never just about the price; it’s important that we make sure supplies are of impeccable quality.”
The upshot of this organisational efficiency is a better service for the 2.9 million patients Columbia Asia cares for each year.
The cost is kept as low as possible for patients, with some 30% of medical conditions constituting about 80% of admissions.
Length of stay is also reduced; for example, even major colon surgery is, on average, a two-day process, ensuring patients needn’t stay any longer than necessary.
“It’s a testament to the continuous improvement that we have achieved,” says Kelvin. “We like doing this because, in the end, patients are the most important factor. When they come to the hospital, what they want is to receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment delivered in the shortest time.
The fact is, nobody wants to stay in hospital unnecessarily. We continue to focus on delivering an accurate diagnosis and treatment in the shortest possible time.”
Kelvin has been managing this organisation since mid-2017 and before that worked for eight years at Parkway Pantai as the chief executive of its Singapore operations division.
Having spent so long within medical administration at some of Asia’s largest healthcare providers, he’s developed an expertise in the field. But his interest was first piqued when he was still working as a doctor.
“In my early years, I was trained to treat patients on a one-to-one basis,” Kelvin recalls. “It gave me a deep insight into how imperfect the process was and how patients were being treated. I developed an interest in managing the processes for health care. Early on I moved into healthcare management, which is where I now spend most of my time.”
“From the start, it was a compelling opportunity, because it’s such a great platform,”
This is no doubt why he is so deeply engaged with the company. “From the start, it was a compelling opportunity, because it’s such a great platform,” he says.
“Having been established more than 20 years ago, Columbia Asia is a trans-Asia platform that provides quality, affordable and accessible health care to the people of Asia. I realised the platform can rapidly be expanded to serve many more people across Asia.”