Founder Spotlight: Manolito Ferreol MD of HUGS, Mainstreaming Convenient
Medical Consultations Amidst COVID-19
By Gianna Abao
Health care delivery has been reshaped due to the COVID-19 pandemic in order to minimize its impact and reduce social contact. While in-person health services are discouraged, DOH endorses a new form of virtual care also known as telemedicine to tend to the healthcare needs of people. One of the providers of telemedicine is Healthcare United Global Solutions (HUGS), a company that offers holistic and integrated solutions for patients towards an interactive and proactive type of care. Techshake spoke with Dr. Manolito Ferreol, CEO of HUGS, where he shared the benefits that this telemedicine company could provide in the long haul.
Could you give us a brief background of yourself?
I’m actually a plastic and reconstructive surgeon by training, but my interest in public health began while I was a medical student through my mother who was a doctor and preventive medicine professor at the UP College Public Health. By the mid-1990s, after I finished a course in Occupational Medicine, I was asked by my friend to help with the medical benefit packages of their company. It was in this big bus company where I first learned the business side of healthcare.
Was UP one of the first institutions to start health tech in the Philippines?
In a way, they were the pioneers in that UP had the medical informatics system who we were working with. They also created the National Telehealth Center which is the research body of UP for mobile health. They were the only one dealing with the standards of telemedicine before the COVID crisis came about.
Can you share how you came up with the idea of building HUGS?
As you know, HUGS stands for Healthcare United Global Solutions. First of all, healthcare in the Philippines is very fragmented. We were trying to create a more holistic and integrated solution that would impact the majority of Filipinos. We wanted to provide a solution that would be more patient-centric instead of provider-centric and something that will help uplift the quality of life of everyone. That was the main inspiration for creating HUGS. It just so happened that along the way, our clients were looking for something that was easier and more convenient. We had a chance to serve Filipinos working abroad or OFW’s and their dependents who were left at home. They needed a way to connect their loved ones with healthcare professionals while they were from far away. That’s how we came up with a health tech solution called iDoc telehealth, which was also an acronym for Integrated Delivery of Care. That is our separate health technology service.
With the mission to provide affordable healthcare options in the Philippines, when did you notice the need for digital healthcare and decided to provide this to fellow Filipinos?
The need was born out of every Filipino’s love for their mobile device. When we noticed that the majority of Filipinos did not have access to basic healthcare, the cellphone became the obvious choice for easy and inexpensive delivery. It was also complimentary to the Universal Health Care project of the government and its primary care focus. If you look at the data from WHO and DOH, less than 15% of the population has any form of formal or private medical insurance. More than about 60% of all the 700 billion peso yearly spend on healthcare is out of pocket, that is why we tried to make it affordable. In addition we are trying to provide a solution that will provide access that would deliver comprehensive healthcare continuously and be able to help maximize one’s productivity.
There is a wider trend in using electronic health records right now, which is also provided by your company. Could you share the services that HUGS provide?
One of our capabilities is to provide doctors and nurses thru our corporate health management. We were helping some companies manage their healthcare services and make their medical benefits more efficient. In order to deliver proper healthcare, you have to have the correct medical history. When you get into medical school, the first thing that it will teach you is how to get the proper medical history of a patient, which could even lead to the proper diagnosis if you get the history completely. To be able to share this history with the patient accurately and to give them the power to share with other providers, we put the records in what we call an electronic health system which is in a digitized format available on the web or as an app.. This includes your past medical history and even your family’s medical history together with other pertinent medical data. There is still a controversy as to who owns the record even though our doctors may have created it. We feel like the patient should have access or control over his or her own record. That’s why we wanted to make that available and that was the first thing we sought out. It’s like a continuing snapshot of your past medical history. That’s why it’s so essential.
How did you go about the business development of HUGS?
We were initially doing mainstream medical services for corporate clients. This included medical staffing and clinic management for DOLE compliance. But by being more client-centric, we listened to the other things they needed and wanted. Our OFW prospects wanted to talk to a Filipino doctor they could trust. They were in another country so we tried to help them out. Secondly, they also wanted to see what was happening to their loved ones who kept asking for help because they were in the Philippines. We said, “Okay, what do we need as components to be able to deliver a holistic and continuous type of care?” That inspired us to create iDoc. Our promise for iDoc is the four Cs of convenient, connected and continuous care. We act as the coordinator for all their medical needs, and that’s how we developed it. We wanted to be the integrator or coordinator and we have to find partners who can help us deliver that type of holistic care. All this together with best practice guidelines and standards used internationally.
Can you tell us more about the challenges that you’ve encountered while growing HUGS and how did you overcome them?
I think the initial hurdle was the acceptance of the people doing telehealth or telemedicine. COVID-19 helped in the sense that nobody wants to go to a medical facility where they might infect them. They also don’t want to leave their homes, so telemedicine suddenly became an acceptable alternative. Having an online discussion with your doctor has suddenly become the preferred means of seeking medical help. The second hurdle is a more technical one which involves the bandwidth available in the country. As you know, depending on where you are and the resources that you have, your bandwidth might not be enough to allow for video conferencing or any other high end portal. Even if our system allows for all types of communication, including video, our system is also geared even for just a simple phone call just for a call to your doctor. There was also an issue of getting the information out. We’re trying to improve our marketing and distribution channels because our advocacy is partly inclusion. By trying to keep our marketing costs down, we tried to keep our prices down.
Since we were talking about marketing, what’s your edge among other competitors?
Our unique and vital advantage is our holistic and integrated approach care. We are the easiest and least expensive way to have something similar to a personalized medical concierge. The usual telemedicine practice is usually a one-way and reactive type of care where a patient calls and a doctor or nurse talks to the patient and once the issue is resolved, the relationship or the engagement ends. With iDoc, it’s a more interactive and proactive type of care, where we keep you continuously engaged and at the best of health by practicing preventive medicine. A lot of people just wait until they feel something not knowing that most of these lifestyle illnesses are already causing damage inside them. Examples include high blood sugar and diabetes, hypertension and heart disease or stroke. Majority of these lifestyle illnesses are preventable if someone can guide them and that’s where we want to come in. We don’t wait for you to call. We’ll take the responsibility of being the one who will take care of you.
What will we expect from you and the company in the future and how do you see HUGS in the next five years?
We want to continue to create awareness for both individuals and groups, including corporates. that are ready to take a more proactive stance and a more active participant in their own healthcare. To make that possible, we plan to partner with as many providers and stakeholders as possible. We also want to create a healthcare consortium that will also include partners in different industries that will help us spread iDoc and our other solutions across their own platforms. Our dream is for every Filipino to have access to quality care by having iDoc on their devices. We want to also have as many medical practitioners and specialists as partners to have a complete experience. Right now, we have a good pharmacy chain in Watsons Pharmacy, a good clinic chain in High-precision Diagnostics, and our first specialist facility partner in Asian Eye Institute. We want subscribers to get access from all of our partners not only in terms of convenience but also discounts and whatever other services they will offer.
Learn more about HUGS and their healthcare services.