Chief of Kingsbridge Private Hospital: 'People are under the impression we're an elite club, but that's simply not the case'
The Big Interview: Mark Regan
As chief executive of Kingsbridge Private Hospital, it should come as no surprise that Mark Regan is a passionate advocate of private healthcare.
While many have reservations about the independent health sector, particularly when it comes to the NHS referring patients to private hospitals, the father-of-four believes it is becoming increasingly important in modern healthcare.
With many patients waiting up to four years following a visit GP visit for some operations, Mr Regan is hoping that more people will turn to providers such as Kingsbridge Private Hospital (KPH) for procedures.
The south Belfast-based facility is part of the 3fivetwo medical group, which also includes 3fivetwo Healthcare, H3 Health Insurance, the Training Academy, Origin Fertility Care, Optique eye and ear care, and cosmetic surgery wing Cosmetech.
In the year to the end of March 2016, the group had turnover of £31.3m. Its figures took a hit following a decision by the NHS to pull the plug on funding for the referral of patients to private clinics such as KPH.
Before that decision, sales reached £42m in the year to the end of March 31, 2014.
There are now a limited number of NHS contracts outsourcing treatment to the independent sector, but the company has tried to stay competitive, and Mr Regan does not want to detract from the successes of the health service.
"Let me start by reminding people of how fortunate we are in Northern Ireland to have a world-class NHS delivered locally," he says.
"If you are involved in a serious car accident, experience a heart attack or are unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with cancer, your chances of surviving through NHS-provided treatment in Northern Ireland are arguably as good as they are anywhere else in the world. We have an outstanding service for life-threatening conditions.
"Other non life-threatening treatments, such as hip replacements, cataracts and hysterectomies, are also delivered locally to such high standards that many of our healthcare professionals are regarded as world experts.
"The trouble is that to avail of these non-life threatening services, the queues are now unacceptably long."
Mr Regan says that with delays of three or four years to get to the front of the queue for procedures, it is "little wonder" that people sometimes seek alternatives. "As a result, private healthcare in places such as Kingsbridge is now becoming mainstream and an option for everyone," he insists.
KPH has more than 300 registered consultants on its books, employs 240 staff and is one of the biggest independent healthcare providers here.
Mr Regan's experience with his eldest child, Charlotte (13), who has Down's syndrome and was born with a hole in her heart, made him look at the system in a different light.
In 2015, he told the Belfast Telegraph: "For the first year of her life, she would turn blue and pass out. The challenge was to get to her first birthday, when she could have surgery to correct this.
"When she was 11 months old, we saw the consultant, who agreed to proceed, but the waiting time was a year.
"She would have been two before she got the surgery, and there were questions if she would survive.
"Thankfully, I had health insurance, and Charlotte had her surgery two weeks later, leaving intensive care on her first birthday."
Mr Regan graduated as a radiographer from Ulster University in 1998, working at a number of hospitals north and south before leaving the NHS in 2001.
He was working in medical innovation for Philips when the opportunity arose to join 3fivetwo.
"I was part of the team that sold the first CT scanner to 3fivetwo," he explains, "and that's when the founders of the company, Dr Suresh Tharma and Dr Ashok Songra, said to me they were looking for someone like me to come on board.
"At the time, private healthcare in Northern Ireland was a relatively new thing.
"It was just taking off, and everyone told me to stay where I was because I was working with a big multi-national and had a good, secure job, but it was the passion of Suresh and Ashok that convinced me to take the job. They were so committed to what they were doing and so passionate that I knew it was the right thing to do to leave Philips. It's a decision I have never regretted."
He believes his clinical background put him in a position to help KPH grow, and he is now as comfortable in the boardroom as on a hospital ward.
"On an almost daily basis there will be situations and challenges that require an understanding that can only come through having healthcare knowledge," Mr Regan says. "I don't profess to know about everything that happens in the hospital clinically, but when its explained I can understand it and make a decision.
"I think it would be very difficult for someone without a clinical background to grow the business at the same pace, because the potential of various opportunities may go unnoticed. The move into industry or business was only possible because I had the background of working in the clinical environment and thus understood the products and needs.
"Each stage of personal development was only possible because of the experiences and opportunities I had in previous employments. I'll not say this made it easy, but it certainly gave me the confidence to keep pushing forward and exploring new avenues of growth."
Making sure their services are within reach of the general public is important to the company. "We have worked hard to get the average person on the street to understand they can take control of their own health," Mr Regan insists. "People have the perception that we are an elite private club, which simply isn't the case.
"We are open to anyone, and when you tell someone who has to wait nine months for an MRI scan that they can have one that afternoon with us for £400, they don't realise that is a possibility."
Innovation, marketing and accessibility have been three important aspects in ensuring patients keep coming through the doors.
"We have been tirelessly tenacious about this, especially with marketing, and I suppose unlike a lot of my peers in the industry, I have gone out to business leaders and talked to them face-to-face about the benefits of private healthcare," Mr Regan says.
"I often quote to people that change is inevitable, progress is optional, and in the business of healthcare that is very true. Innovation in medicine has been fast-paced for the last few centuries, more so in the last 30 to 40 years.
"That said, while we also have adopted many innovative medical and surgical techniques, we have been one of the first to innovate in how people access doctors and healthcare professionals."
The company offers consultations online - a service that has been taken up by businesses - and has worked hard to de-stigmatise psychological illnesses through its services, which is part of doing all it can for patients.
"Private healthcare is a growing industry, but so too is the local competition," Mr Regan explains. "At Kingsbridge we are focused on staying ahead of this competition through innovation in the services we offer, improving access to those services for all the community and finally by giving people the 'wow' factor when they avail of them."