What the doctor ordered: London Doctors Clinic's Seth Rankin talks Papua New Guinea, crowdfunding and bringing choice to patients

 
Harriet Green
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The GP says his entrepreneurial streak stems from his missionary parents, who worked in Papua New Guinea

If you've ever needed to pop to the doctors that same day, and you didn’t have the time or inclination to go to a walk-in centre, you may well have found yourself going to a London Doctors Clinic. If you’re based in central London, there’s one within ten minutes of where you work.

At £55 for 15 minutes with a GP, a one-off appointment is within reach for most City workers. “Ninety nine per cent of people who wake up needing to see a doctor think ‘I can’t go private’ but they can. Within the system, even if you’ve got money, you can’t access on demand,” says founder Seth Rankin.

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The doctor-come-entrepreneur set up eight London Travel Clinics between 2004 and 2014, having arrived in the UK from native New Zealand in 1998. These offer everything you need for a trip – injections, and medicine dispensed on site. Two years ago he “decided to take the same model and see if it’d work for GPs. Lots of people have to take half a day off to go to the doctor. Often that’s intolerable for them and for their employers. There are also plenty of people passing through London who don’t have access to the NHS at all.”

This year alone, he’s taken on 2,500 patients, with 30-35 per cent monthly growth. “Most of our business so far has come direct from customers. But we’ve had an increasing number of companies coming to us who want to offer our services to their employees.” This makes sense for businesses – their return on investment is not having staff out of the office for hours.

A new gear

With no-one else doing the same as him at scale, Rankin thinks he may have a “first mover advantage of sorts. I’m not sure ‘democratising private healthcare’ is quite the right expression, but that’s what we’re doing.”

Currently, he has plans for 10 further surgeries in the capital, and is strategising how to go national, too. “London is a unique economy with lots of dislocated people. The price points may be different in the provinces, and the spread of clinics would be different.” Rankin says the NHS generally tends to work better regionally anyway. “There’s more of a personal note – people know their GP. But we’re certainly looking to expand outside of London.

It’s a sign of improving wealth when people need more convenience. And what I still find extraordinary in the UK is the lack of realisation that there’s a market for convenience.” This is something Rankin puts down to our national mindset: “you think medicine, you think NHS” – but it’d be a mistake to think that he, having worked in the UK health system for nearly three years, is a detractor of the national healthcare system.

“The way that it’s set up is brilliant. At less than 9 per cent of GDP, it’s phenomenally inexpensive. And it should rightly be devoting its services to the most needy not, quite frankly, someone who needs a letter to say they’re fit to run the Paris marathon.”

Future-gazing

I ask what he thinks the NHS will look like in 20 years’ time. “Much the same – it does everything you need a health service to do. It’s just that people will have more choice, and that will take some of the pressure off the public system. That’s a good thing.”

He goes on to explain how excited he is by developments like genetic-based and personalised medicine – which will see costs plunge and outcomes improve enormously. He’s also adamant that allowing doctors to charge some patients would be a red line. “If the system rewarded doctors every time they saw a patient, you’d see collusion; the focus shifts off health. This is the reason medicine costs so much in the US – 17 per cent of GDP – you can’t have cost and convenience; there’s always a trade off.”

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And this leads on to something that preoccupies Rankin: ensuring that he’s always treading the line between providing care and running a business. “In medicine, you get taught utterly to treat the individual. In business, it’s the business that matters. And if an individual is interfering with the welfare of the business, you cull that individual. That’s extremely difficult to reconcile.”

We’ve just been talking about junior doctors, and Rankin reflects: “business is far harder than they, or anyone, would ever imagine.” He’s keen to stress that, as a doctor, he stands behind his younger counterparts completely, but his time in business and the City has given him a parallel view.

“They’re not masters and mistresses of their professions yet, and the trouble is that lots of them are seeing people they went to school with earning much more than them. But it’s extremely difficult to get a job in the City – and you’re not guaranteed a job on good pay for life. Junior doctors are putting a lot in, but those people are putting in far more.”

But Rankin in a special case – and it’s clear that he was always going to be something of a hybrid. The son of missionaries, he spent much of his childhood watching the entrepreneurial work of his parents’ church in Papua New Guinea, setting up schools, hospitals and community projects.

“Being a doctor reminds you how little choice any of us really have in life. My parents valued education, I’m from a good country with little in the way of financial services – if you were bright at school, medicine was the way forward. At the same time, I’ve got no doubt where my entrepreneurial streak came from.”

Institutionally backed to date, this month, London Doctors Clinic is embarking on a funding round on equity crowdfunding platform Crowdcube. “When crowdfunding first arrived, I thought it was a great idea. I remember years ago trying to buy shares; I rang a broker and was left feeling like an idiot. Of course there are pitfalls, but it’s a great opportunity for businesses and investors.”

Rankin is hoping that his patients will want to become his investors. “I’m looking for an exit in three to five years, and I think that will resonate with investors. I believe we can grow into an established healthcare provider – and there’s plenty of room for all of us in this market.”

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