Going Digital In The Face Of The Pandemic

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Dr Yanni Xu

WHEN a key ingredient of your business model is connecting with your customer in close proximity, something like the COVID-19 pandemic cuts deep beneath the surface and tests your ability to find new ways of keeping the business going.

Dr Yanni Xu, founder and medical director of The Urban Clinic, has had to switch gears as the COVID-19 pandemic stopped her physical business dead in its tracks. Not one to sit back and wait, she has quickly taken to the digital path and is offering teleconsultations via Zoom.

The Urban Clinic started teleconsulting two weeks before Singapore’s Circuit Breaker measures kicked in. A week later, it started delivery services for medications and products.

“Besides Google and Facebook, I think people will embrace getting information from a specialist (consultant, teacher, doctor) via email, messaging system or teleconferencing… people will start to use more apps,” Dr Xu observes.

“In view of that, we will move into designing an app to give patients more tailored health care information.”

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Dr Xu has also launched Your Skin Care Mentor, an online programme of activities that will keep her connection with clients relevant, and possibly allow her to reach new audiences. It includes 10-minute skincare instructional videos on Instagram and YouTube, as well as discussions of interesting cases.

But this digital diversion also serves as a pre-emptive move should another disruption take place.

“To prepare for another pandemic, more investments will be made for tech-related items like cyber security, enhanced servers and Artificial Intelligence, as opposed to more lasers and machines,” she explains.

Beyond her current patients, Dr Xu is also using the pandemic as a platform to reach new audiences. “With teleconsulting, there is a small chance that we may be able to reach patients further away.”

Being Realistic

The King’s College London School of Medicine valedictorian had always wanted to be a doctor, like her Father, a general practitioner.

“I was interested in women’s health (and still am) so I wanted to do obstetrics and gynecology; that was probably influenced by my Mum who had fertility issues and ended up having 5 caesarean sections and 5 daughters as a reward.”

As the first cohort of medical/surgical residents in Singapore, Dr Xu had a six-year residency leading to a PhD ahead of her.

“Midway through the programme, I felt that the research environment was not as stimulating and robust as I envisioned it to be. I could not see myself delivering babies forever.”

Dr Xu decided to focus on her other interest, in cosmetic dermatology and aesthetics. She went for courses overseas and was eventually hired by one of the big aesthetic clinics in Singapore.

She struck out on her own, starting The Urban Clinic in July 2016 — initially at Raffles City, before relocating to Orchard Shopping Centre.

Managing a business and a medical practice can be a tricky proposition,  but the mother of 2 young children took it in her stride.

“I wanted to do an MBA to learn about business, but there was never a good time. I may not understand financial spreadsheets very well but I realised I cannot ‘learn’ everything in business.

“A businesswoman is first a team leader…she must be able to convince the team to take her side. Then she must make plans and painful decisions for the business and team. No good can come at the expense of your customer.

“I am a doctor first. Always. Without my patients, I am nothing.”

Put To The Test

Dr Xu has seen her business growing steadily, but the COVID-19 pandemic has severely put it to the test.

A pragmatist, by nature, she is “no longer waiting for things to go back to normal”.

“I have started to work on riding out this wave. COVID-19 taught me that to survive, we must learn and evolve. It is a most painful and necessary lesson.”

When the restrictions are eased and her physical business restarts, Dr Xu is expecting a busy schedule, and longer hours, especially in light of social distancing measures that require the implementation of procedures to prevent bunching up of appointments and overcrowding of the clinic. Her salon has to be redesigned to have individual cubicles and rooms.

“The world will not be as it was. With social distancing measures, I think it will take years — and a vaccine — to normalise,” Dr Xu admits.

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With the extended Circuit Breaker measures, and the uncertainty of an end point, Dr Xu is grateful for the government initiatives that have helped with her operating costs. She has found the banks to be supportive, though the landlord has been lagging with support.

“But I’m sure the government will make sure that the landlord will give us some support in the end.”

When the restrictions have been lifted, some of the measures that have been introduced — teleconsult and delivery services — will continue to be offered. The pandemic has resulted in some enhanced business measures that, while born out of circumstances, have become necessary.

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