03 August 2015
by Caroline James

Is this Australia's Trip Advisor of health?

It's a business model that's threatening the established private health providers.

Neill Cullen: bringing affordable health to the masses.

Niel Cullen and business partners – Hew Gibbs, a physiotherapist, and Chris Bates, a marketing agency director – have self-funded development of WellOne brand, web site and app and launched it within a year.

It launched in July with 100 dental practitioners and 100 chiropractors, optical specialists and physiotherapists on board.

The trio hopes leveraging peer networks via email, phone, trade shows, word-of-mouth referrals and social media will rapidly – and simultaneously – spread the word to user and practitioner markets.

They hope to have national coverage within months.

"We don't really have a dollar figure goal yet and will use Victoria as our foundation stone, but hopefully it will be self-funding before too long," says Cullen, who now works full-time on the business.

"There is nothing else like it in Australia for allied health so there will be an education process for the next six to 12 months, and we are a bit wary of saturating areas with coverage.

"We don't want five dentists in one suburb."

WellOne makes its money from consumers. A single adult pays $79, couples $89 and a family of four including children aged under 24 pay $99.

For this annual fee a user gets up to 40 per cent off a standard initial consultation fee and is guaranteed 15 per cent off any further treatments with registered dental, physiotherapy, chiropractic care, optical, osteopathy, podiatry, massage, myotherapy and orthodontics providers. They must present their membership app to qualify.

There are no treatment limits or waiting periods and there is no cost to participating practitioners.

Cullen is confident the business will appeal to both users who cannot afford private health insurance and those who want extra savings on top of private health cover rebates.

He highlights data collected by Private Healthcare Australia, which found almost 1.6 million policies were cancelled and almost 1 million downgraded between February 2012 and December 2014.

"The premise is pretty simple, to plug a giant hole created by rising health costs and expensive private health insurance.

"A recent report by the National Health Performance Authority found the percentage of adults who reported they delayed or did not see a dentist, dental specialist or hygienist was up to 34 per cent due to cost and we are all seeing it in surgeries today.

"I just saw this guy in the waiting room and remembered when I first saw him he had a cracked tooth and needed a crown, which would have cost about $2000, but he couldn't afford it.

"Now he needs major dental work including an extraction and a crown and it's going to cost him about $6000.

"It's shocking and if we can help people get access to preventative treatments that is creating a win-win for practitioners, who are losing patients due to rising costs, and for patients."

Antony Nicholas, deputy chair of Allied Health Professions Australia, says he's already fielded queries about the Melbourne-based allied health tech start-up by AHPA members wanting to decipher its benefits.

"Like any start-up, there are pros and cons," Nicholas says.

"Less than 5 per cent of the MBS (Medical Benefits Scheme) is spent on allied health rebates for consumers so obviously we are happy about anything that promotes our industry but, let's be clear, this is a commercial venture so ultimately the savings (to patients) are coming from the practitioners and it will be very much down to individual clinics to decide whether to be involved.

"A busy clinic that is highly subscribed with a full waiting list would have to ask why sign up but in areas where there is more competition due to multiple clinics or if you are a new start-up practice, yes, there may be benefits."

E-commerce is opening a new chapter in traditional healthcare delivery, according to physiotherapist Karen Finnen who launched Physios Online with her husband, also a physiotherapist, on returning to Australia from East Timor.

"Overseas I had set up to service the thousands of expats who were living and working there, and I was sad that these people would go without treatment and felt that treatment could be effectively conveyed online," she says.

The business charges patients a capped fee that gives them unlimited virtual physio for a set period of time.

But online consultations are not risk-free for practitioners, Finnen stresses.

Common mistakes include lack of indemnity insurance cover for online consultations, lack of a systematic method of collating patients' multimedia records, insufficient marketing, an illogical user experience, poor follow-up, pricing that does not reflect the online model and/or legal vulnerability if the correct standards and measures are not in place when administering advice online.

"(They) are where online dating was about 10 years ago; people are nervous of it and are unsure whether to trust it or not.

"It is only a matter of time, however, before this will change."

When private healthcare fund Nib launched White Coat in 2013, "it didn't get a lot of traction", says new marketing manager Mikky Baroni.

Last September Touch to Buy joined the venture, relaunching the healthcare directory/review site and offering a healthcare booking function via PC, tablet or app from August.

By 2014/2015 White Coat had about 2 million unique visitors and 140,000 signed-up practitioners.

"We have started a joint venture, taken over and completely opened it up to the general public," Baroni says.

"We allow patient to review providers, which was a bit of a hurdle initially because of the industry's regulations around advertising but we've done much work ensuring our moderation process is rigorous, are adding online booking via a hook-up with First Available and it's completely free to the end user."

Directory listing is also free to practitioners but if they want leads from the booking service, it will cost about $1000 a year.

With this scale of uptake,chief executive Matthew Donnellan is understandably ambitious.

"We are Australia's biggest health directory. We want to be the Trip Advisor of health."