Interview: Dr Shamsheer Vayalil Parambath

His Lifeline Hospitals Group is in aggressive expansion mode, just six years after launching in Abu Dhabi
Interview: Dr Shamsheer Vayalil Parambath
In May 2007, Shamsheer opened the first Lifeline Hospital in the centre of Abu Dhabi, and he has been expanding the business ever since.
By Beatrice Thomas
Fri 24 Jan 2014 03:27 AM

Shamsheer Vayalil Parambath could have been just a doctor, though a good one at that.

Having pursued his medical degree at the prestigious Sri Ramachandra Medical College in his native India and completed training in radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, he started his career as a radiologist at Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi, where he worked for 12 months.

But for the son from a family of several generations of successful businessmen, it was never going to be enough.

“The blood was business, you have to do something,” Shamsheer tells Arabian Business in an exclusive interview.

“Even during MD days or college days, we used to do business like selling T-shirts and small things, but I always had a flair for doing something on my own.”

In May 2007, aged just 30, Shamsheer opened the first Lifeline Hospital in the centre of Abu Dhabi, and he has been expanding the business ever since.

“I was looking at the market and found the market very interesting, because I could see the government is moving into one direction of privatisation and introduction of insurance schemes, so a gap was very clear and I could see that the gap was going to increase,” Shamsheer, who is managing director of the LLH Healthcare Group, says.

“This is where the desire started, because the infrastructure, apart from healthcare, was world-class.”

Today, the LLH Group is a fully integrated healthcare business comprising 5,000 employees, nine operational hospitals in the UAE, Oman and India, as well as 30 onsite clinics across Abu Dhabi, an event medical service in the UAE, Oman and India and a pharmaceutical manufacturing and retail chain.

In 2008, it also added to its portfolio the Lifeline Health out-of-hospital services, including industrial and occupational medicine services, ambulance services, a home care medical and nursing service called CallDr, as well as primary care Lifelife Minute clinics.

However, Shamsheer says all this is just the start with plans for a chain of hospitals in India amid an overall target to grow bed numbers from 1,200 to 5,000 in the next five years.

There are also plans to turn the pharmaceutical arm of the group into a $1bn business in the next five years, led by an expansion into Europe and the US.

“That has been our model from the beginning — of faster growth,” the 37-year-old married father-of-three says. “We lead one or two greenfield projects, [but] most of our hospitals are conversions of existing buildings [and] because they were already built that gives us a head start.”

As well as LLH Hospital Electra, which is the largest private tertiary hospital in the region, LLH Group also operates the LLH Hospital Mussafah and Life Care Hospital Al Raha in Abu Dhabi, Lakeshore Hospital in Kochi, India; LLH Hospitals in both Sohar and Salalah in Oman and the Burjeel Hospital for Advanced Surgery in Dubai and the Kids Park Dental Centre in Abu Dhabi. It has also opened a Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi in 2012, which has been branded the first seven-star hospital in the Gulf region.

In addition, it is building a new 400-bed hospital in Kerala that is in the design phase, and a new oncology facility to be opened within Mohammed Bin Zayed City in Abu Dhabi in the next two and a half years, with plans for both a Lifeline Hospital and Burjeel Medical Centre in Muscat, an LLH hospital in Dubai and a Lifecare Hospital in Mussafah.

Shamsheer says in the next six to 12 months it also plans to establish a management office in Saudi Arabia, while it is also in talks in Qatar.

He says expanding from hospitals into the pharmaceutical area in 2010 was a logical step.

In 2010, having established Lifeline Pharmacies within its hospitals and several standalone stores, it added to the portfolio master franchisee for US company Cardinal Health’s The Medicine Shoppe brand of pharmacies in the GCC. It currently has 12 The Medicine Shoppe stores, but plans to grow this to 50 over the next three years throughout the Middle East and India.

“If you want to deliver a good quality of care there are a lot of elements which are not directly under your control if you’re only at a hospital level,” Shamsheer says. “What we did was we decided to look at the whole delivery model right from the supply chain, the distribution, even the medicines.”

Its distribution and manufacturing network, he says, which is run through Lifeline Scientific, which is a marketing and distribution company, and the Lifeline Drug Store, which provides a storage and logistics centre, covers its hospitals as well as other healthcare facilities, while the manufacturing unit in Jebel Ali also ensures “quality measures are much more under control”.

He says it has acquired two patents for the Middle East and North Africa, including one from South Korea, which will further aid its overseas ambitions.

“The FDA [Food and Drug Administration]’s approach towards quality has become much more stringent and a lot of Indian companies have started facing problems with the quality issues,” he says. “For us, it is the right positioning in terms of quality — Dubai has always been the leader in quality and that would help us getting an entry into these markets if you can provide the right quality at the right price.”

Shamsheer says capturing the European and US markets — it is in the midst of stringent regulatory approvals elsewhere, with audits completed in most African markets and GCC audits taking place — would position the company to supply goods anywhere in the world.

“That is one of the main reasons for the global focus. The position here in terms of the logistics hub, the connectivity with the rest of the world, if you want to leverage on that I think the global market is what we need to play,” he says.

Nonetheless, he is a strong advocate of “prevention is cheaper and better than cure”, which is evident in the wellness care services introduced at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi,which he plans to roll out to other hospitals.

As well as offering speciality health services such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), he explains, the hospital provides facilities such as a gym, a dedicated service for check-ups and healthy restaurants.

“We changed the environment,” he says. “Hospital is not just about treating the patients, we believed in prevention as well. What we decided was we’ll give it an ambience, so they don’t feel like they’re coming into a hospital, so it’s like a hotel setting. We want people to come not just when they’re sick, we want them to come when they are well,” he says.

He adds: “Everybody talks about this model — the focus is to become a centre of choice for the region.”

It is also the reason for offering health check-ups to corporate clients, and the basis for starting another business venture, D Club Organic Food, which supplies food through a central kitchen to certain schools, universities and also other hospitals.

“In the years to come you would see a big drift…in terms of lifestyle, because awareness is increasing,” he says. “We have focused on the food aspect, because most of the sicknesses arise out of the food. You eat wrong and they say you are what you eat.”

Shamsheer, who was this month conferred with the prestigious 2014 Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the highest honour awarded by India to non-resident Indians, for his contribution to healthcare, says obesity is among the top health issues in the Middle East.

Tellingly, he has identified orthopaedics as a key speciality area for his business.

“The lifestyle diseases are increasing — obesity, diabetes, blood pressure — all these diseases are now on top of the agenda,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle change, we have much more of a sedentary lifestyle, everybody is stressed, you don’t have time for yourself.”

He says awareness, starting at school level, is key to ensuring people followed a better diet and lifestyle.

“To reduce costs in the future and spending on healthcare, it has to be focused now,” he says. “It’s not just government, it should be essentially a part of the CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities of any institution.”

Likewise, issues with the number of expatriates suffering from communicable diseases is also about education. Last month the Dubai Health Authority revealed figures that a staggering 25 percent of the 2 million expatriates which arrive in the Gulf on average every year suffer from an infectious disease.

Dr Wasif Muhammad Alam, director, Public Health & Safety, Dubai Health Authority, told Arabian Business that the figures related mostly to expatriates from developing countries such as India and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, with chicken pox, food-borne diseases and influenza the biggest concern. A lack of education and no knowledge of preventative care and “common sense” hygiene such as washing hands and safe storage of food was to blame, he said.

Shamsheer agrees, but says that improvements in accommodation options for workers should help. “Now, if you look at the market here it’s a very high quality of living conditions for the workers, so we’ve seen a decline that is happening over the last couple of years,” he says.

Shamsheer says medical tourists, including from African countries and other GCC countries, made up almost 50 percent of hospital patients in Dubai. This compares to Abu Dhabi, where 60 percent of patients are local.

However, he believes the UAE could be a leading medical tourism hub in years to come, with the “centre of excellence” model used at its Dubai hospital, which specialises in orthopaedics, including sports medicine, one to replicate.

“We are moving towards that ratio of more medical tourists coming (to Abu Dhabi),” he says. “Right now, we rely on almost 80 percent of our business comes from insurance companies in Abu Dhabi. But, Dubai and Abu Dhabi behave differently.”

Shamsheer says the fact the LLH Health Group is an “end-to-end healthcare organisation” has dividends on both a practical and efficiency level.

Though the group has never analysed the efficiency gain compared to other private healthcare providers, he admits “that is where the criticality of the healthcare delivery lies — the efficiency of how you are utilising the resources”.

However, Shamsheer says efficiency could be improved through faster licensing of overseas-trained doctors.

The current waiting time is three to six months, he says, which has forced the group to look to partnerships with international universities in a bid to train doctors in-house.

“The speeding up on things should happen, because the world is getting more and more competitive and we need to attract the right talent,” he says.

He acknowledges that few doctors are Emirati, but hopes that will change. For his part, he is in talks to establish a postgraduate medical programme at LLH Hospital Electra within the next year.

“The school curriculum should start addressing these kind of prospects of how it is to become a doctor or a healthcare professional, because I think these places should have more and more locals coming into healthcare,” he says.

Shamsheer believes the introduction of compulsory health insurance in Dubai will increase demand for healthcare facilities, though the model, which encourages people to see local practitioners before visiting a hospital, will be cost-effective.

With the scheme introduced five years after it came into effect in Abu Dhabi in 2008 (where take up is 98 percent) he expects it will foster similar results in no time and eventually be rolled out across the entire UAE.

“Any system needs to be time-tested and they are doing it in the right way of monitoring what is happening in Dubai and then rolling it out into other emirates. I think it’s one of the top priorities of any government right now in the Middle East.”

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