HM meets…Frank Ahedo

Frank Ahedo, CEO, Further Group

The merger of online consultation platform Trustedoctor with global insurer Further earlier this year looks set to open a new chapter in digital health solutions. Further CEO Frank Ahedo talks to HM about the game-changing deal, the development of digital pathways and its potential to increase access to healthcare on a global platform

HM Can you tell HM a bit about your background? 

FA I entered the healthcare insurance business in 1995 as a sales director in an insurance broker. In 1998, I set up Healthcare International, a specialised healthcare wholesale broker with offices in London and Madrid.   

I joined Best Doctors Inc. in 2001 as CEO of the international division, based out of Madrid. Best Doctors led the market in expert second medical opinions, but it was also during this time that I started developing the Critical Advantage solution. This was really when my vision of creating the first truly affordable international healthcare solution for the treatment of serious medical conditions took shape. I built a team, Best Doctors Underwriting, dedicated to making this vision a reality, and we soon expanded our activities throughout Europe, Russia and China.  I then led a management buyout in 2017, which led to the creation of Further. Critical Advantage would go on to become our flagship product 

HM Can you tell HM about Further Group, what it does, and its ethos? 

FA At its heart, the Further Group aims to create simple insurance and service solutions that give people suffering from a serious illness a better chance of a successful health outcome.  

The Further Group was born out of a market need that was increasingly becoming apparent. We work from this guiding vision I mentioned, of levelling the playing field when it comes to healthcare access. Essentially, we think everyone – not just some people – should have access to the best possible care if they are seriously ill. In other words, a critical situation calls for a critical response, with a team that kicks into high gear to pull out all the stops. Geography should not matter, and income should not matter.  

In this sense, our core ethos is that what we offer should be affordable, simple and ready to be deployed anywhere. This is reflected in our solutions for serious illness: we take care of everything, navigating hospital choices and admissions, travel and accommodation and following up after recovery. We provide solutions that adapt to both insurer and employer needs. For example, we can offer a standalone policy or a rider to general life, critical illness cover or benefits. The bottom line is always about ensuring access to the right treatment. 

HM Further merged with consultant platform Trustedoctor at the end of last year. How do the two businesses complement one another and how will they integrate? 

FA We are basically creating a new healthcare solution category. This means a holistic, borderless and fully digitalised solution for all stages of the patient journey. Again, this is in line with our vision of healthcare for the many, not the few. Whether it is an initial consultation, a second medical opinion, or specialised assessment and treatment at a global medical centre of excellence, at the end of the day what we are doing is enabling more and more people to be seen by the right doctors, at the right time.  

Underpinning and facilitating all of this is the digital architecture provided by the Trustedoctor platform. This is key, because from the perspective of the end user, the person who has a policy with our insurer customer or who is employed by our employer customer, they will be able to access our services.  

From the perspective of our customers, the platform will be customised to the services they want to offer their insured members or employees, but can be easily deployed for all of their different populations in the same way. So, what we’re doing is creating something tailored to each customer, but which does not require tinkering or adaption by the customer in order to be used for various populations or geographies. 

HM What are the main benefits of the Trustedoctor platform and how will it be offered to your insurance customers? 

FA For both end users and customers, the common themes are access, choice and control.  

The Trustedoctor platform allows individuals to take their healthcare virtual, mobile and secure, via an easy-to-use interface that gives them access to both local and international doctor networks and other digital services. It essentially provides an end-to-end, streamlined patient journey for the entire spectrum of major and minor healthcare concerns that any given person might experience in their life. This includes online consultations, specialist access, medical team collaborations, centralised storage of tests and data, and protected sharing of medical records.  

For our customers, Trustedoctor is a digital infrastructure serving up a customised, turnkey offering of products and services for both insurers as well as employee benefits providers. This means that each of our customers can choose what makes sense to them in terms of the medical needs they seek to fill: standalone access to the platform for virtual consultations, access to the platform as a complement to their serious illness cover designed by Further, and so forth.  

HM Insurers have been fast to adopt telehealth products ever since the first online GP services were launched around 2013/14. What is the rationale behind incorporating insurance and protection products and online doctor services? 

FA The adoption of telemedicine has come in waves, starting from the GP offering and moving on to mental health and other areas. The GP model, focused on primary care, is much more homogeneous and easy to scale than secondary care, which is very hard to create and maintain due to the complexity of different specialties and subspecialties. However, both Further and Trustedoctor have been present since the outset of the specialised healthcare wave, and we have developed our solutions precisely to deal with the complexities and make them much easier to manage and access. 

We focus on solutions for specialised medicine and in particular, serious illnesses such as cancer. This is in lockstep with the growing ‘consumerisation’ of healthcare, where patients are increasingly better informed and where there is growing demand for access to specialist healthcare that includes navigation and a digital experience with a network of medical providers around the world. Particularly in the context of the Covid pandemic, the move by both medical providers and insurers towards offering digital solutions has become far more prevalent.  

Finally, we view treating cancer and other serious illnesses as a global effort which requires a holistic approach. In this sense, digital access to a global network of leading doctors and hospitals has been a game changer and a huge driver behind our growth and evolution in this sector. 

HM Online GP services had become a firm feature of the market pre-Covid. Why has adoption of online outpatient and secondary care services been slow in comparison? 

FA This has a lot to do with what I mentioned just now. Online GP services are more generalist and easy to implement because you only need a small team of doctors to run a significant operation.  

Online services in specialised healthcare are more complex to deliver as they involve different niche specialties. It takes time to create a network of specialised doctors and pre-Covid there was not sufficient pressure from the medical community for mass adoption. Patients were happy to see a doctor online for less serious conditions but hardly ever for specialised healthcare. This has been a matter of perception and intrinsic beliefs. The Covid pandemic has changed this. Over the last twelve months the digital transformation has been significant and the new hybrid model of virtual and physical appointments is here to stay. We are happy to say that we are a pioneer on that front. We expect the demand and adoption of these services to increase post-pandemic and we are very well placed to respond to that fundamental paradigm shift.  

HM Since the start of the pandemic, hospitals in both the NHS and independent sector have adopted online platforms for consultation. How do you see this trend developing?

FA The adoption of digital technologies has been tremendously fast, as there was such a clear need. For instance, a growing number of hospitals (both private and NHS) have a form of video platform that is used with patients. However, different platforms have different capabilities and use cases. Using Zoom or Teams might help in some cases but falls far short in others. Most of our doctors will use a couple of different platforms, and Trustedoctor has become the platform of choice for more complex cases. This is because our patient pathway includes secure data transfer, medical records curation, collaboration, scan annotation as well as video consultation capability, making the patient experience a lot more tangible and creating the necessary continuum of care. We also quickly realised that a technology-only model is not sufficient and we pride ourselves on providing a complete service with technical navigation and support via chat, email or phone. 

HM Online consultations enable patients to consult doctors almost anywhere in the world. Can they be integrated into the existing patient journey or will new pathways be needed as online consultation becomes more commonplace? 

FA A bit of both, I would say. Depending on the specialty and the requirement, technology can be embedded into existing pathways.  

At the same time, new digital pathways need to be developed to better address the growing needs of patients around the world. Healthcare systems globally are facing challenges, with a backlog of patients not having access to screening, diagnostic testing or treatment during the pandemic. The Further Group is highly experienced in developing bespoke patient pathways and working with different medical providers. In this sense we are primed to adapt and continue to grow based on the market and the patient need, from both a technical and a service point of view. 

HM How have you been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic? 

FA The nature of what we do revolves around ensuring people can connect with people and expertise remotely. In this sense, on an operational level it was business as usual for us.  

It is true that, when the pandemic began, our critical illness services were initially disrupted. Many countries were in full lockdown and around the world, and there was no one country that was really and truly prepared. But we soon began to receive more and more requests for hospitals at less ‘traditional’ medical destinations, many of which are affiliated with highly renowned medical centres of excellence such as MD Anderson or Johns Hopkins. The staff at these hospitals really went to great lengths to make it easier for our patients to access their services and navigate the restrictions and concerns that the pandemic has brought with it. 

I should also point out that, in addition to the responses from specific hospitals, we have been hugely impressed by the speed at which governments and the industry itself have also reacted. All of this is to say that Further Group business has grown dramatically, with end-user volumes now higher than they were pre-Covid, and with a 400% jump in virtual interaction due to the massive demand for remote consultations 

HM How do you see the telehealth market developing in the short to medium term? 

FA Short term, the worldwide scramble to respond to the challenges posed by Covid has produced a huge boom in all things digital, from full-fledged platforms to add-on tools and apps. This has resulted in considerable patchiness and inconsistency. Many pathways are looking rather disjointed and isolated, in terms of both the patient journey and available patient services, as well as how an insurer or employee benefits provider can leverage these. There will now be a move towards partial commoditisation and standardisation of telehealth, with more basic provisions widely available and accepted.  In the medium-long term, this will lead to consolidation and a more focused approach in terms of our ability to support specific specialities and needs, such as cancer and complex illnesses, as well as mental health and chronic issues. I also think that high-precision, AI-based diagnostics will play an increasingly larger role.  

HM What are your priorities for the next 12 months?  

FA Clearly the continuing pandemic situation and the resulting service disruptions seen in healthcare systems the world over is keeping our day-to-day focus on helping more and more people gain potentially life-saving or life-extending access to the right medical advice and treatment. 

Beyond this immediate, critical context, the Further Group is looking to build on the consolidated, digitalised insurance/service model that has been created via the merger of Further and Trustedoctor, making our solutions more accessible and affordable to the wider population, expanding our footprint around the world and deepening our offer within the markets where we already operate. We are creating new products and services oriented to different specialties and even to specific therapies. Finally, we will also continue to work hand in hand with the medical community and with our growing network of specialists. As users of our digital architecture, their input, experiences and best practice are vital for enhancing the functionality and service offering and staying on the leading edge.