German Accelerator Coffee Sessions with Sophie Chung

Sophie Chung, MD (Qunomedical) | Democratizing Access to High-Quality Healthcare (Part 1)

The journey of a former medical doctor who launched a one of a kind business to solve the three main challenges of healthcare: better, faster, cheaper.

Sophie Chung standing at the corner of a busy intersection in New York City

Sophie Chung, MD | Founder & CEO Qunomedical

Sophie, you are originally from Austria but have mostly lived and worked in Germany and in the U.S. Now you are spending some time in New York to bring Qunomedical to the States. That’s very exciting news. First, tell us about Qunomedical and how it works.

Qunomedical is a Berlin-based global platform that helps people find medical care in different countries. You can think of it as the Airbnb for medical treatments.

Before you started Qunomedical, you worked in management consulting in New York. How does this all fit together and first of all, why not be a doctor and help people directly?

I love being a doctor and if you ask me, I could see myself going back to medicine one day. I don’t know if I’m ever going to do that, but I did not leave medicine because I hated being a doctor. I think healthcare is one of the most exciting places to be in as a doctor or as a business person.

How does that fit together? I started off as a doctor and stem cell researcher where I worked in a hospital treating patients every single day. Then, by coincidence, I ended up on the ‘dark side’ working for a management consulting company for five years. And all of a sudden I had the opportunity to learn about health care from a business perspective. Something that was completely new to me. I like to say it was like a paid MBA after which I felt like a well-rounded healthcare professional. That was at a time when technology and digital startups started blooming, especially in Germany, and all of a sudden I realized that there was another way for me to pursue my passion. Not only as a doctor, or as a business person, but somewhere in the middle that allowed me to build a product from scratch and solve real problems.

At that point, I was with the management consulting company in Berlin and decided to come to New York where everything was happening and digital startups were a few years ahead. I left my well-paid job and moved to New York to work for a startup called ZocDoc. That’s where I learned my third craft next to medicine and business, which was basically digital. With the three skills combined, I felt very ready to start my own company.

That’s a great story. Are your parents actually disappointed that you’re not a doctor anymore?

Yes and no (laughs). My parents are typical Asian immigrant parents and I am the oldest daughter in the family, so of course, I made them very proud by becoming a medical doctor. It was a disappointment for my mother when I told her that I was going to quit my job as a doctor. The following two years – every time I talked to my mom over the phone – she would ask me when I was ready to go back to medicine. In the meantime, she has made peace with it because she understands that I am successful and am building something very impactful.

My mom still doesn’t really understand what I do. Now help me understand your product a little better. Why do people need Qunomedical, especially if they come from a country with very good Healthcare systems like Germany or Austria?

That is a question I often get, especially from people in Germany. However, if you take a closer look, you will find patients anywhere in the world who have difficulties accessing medical care. Let’s take Germany for example – while people generally have good access to care, you may find increased wait times for certain procedures. Oftentimes, you will not get a hip implant within the next few months due to a shortage of doctors. In a case like that, you should be able to go to an online platform to search for a faster appointment.

Then there is dentistry, where large parts are not covered by insurance, like dental implants. Surprisingly, we see many patients in Germany who don’t have any teeth. I always used to think not being able to eat was the biggest problem of not having teeth, but I learned that those people really suffer in their social lives. I heard patients saying that they don’t date, don’t smile or don’t kiss anymore. It really has a lot of impact on people’s lives and quality of life. As a patient you can either accept a lower quality of life because you can’t afford it or now, with Qunomedical, you can go across the border to Hungary and get your new teeth with a 30-50% discount.

There are hundreds of other use cases and we generally like to summarize them in terms of the tri factor of healthcare problems: cost, quality and wait time. Usually, it’s a combination of the three.

Say I needed to get some dental work done. I would probably go to my dentist and ask for a referral or go to my general practitioner. At that point, Qunomedical is completely out of that loop. How do you make people aware of the fact that you even exist?

As we have a digital product, we truly believe in the power of the internet. In the case you described, you’ve now been to the doctor and you came to realize that you can’t do it – either it’s too expensive or you have other reasons for not moving forward. At this stage, you start looking for different options. What do you do as a patient? You go online and start researching. And this is where we try to pick up our patients.

We focus very much on online marketing in various channels, paid and unpaid. We try to pick up the patient where he or she is. I think the days where you just throw money at Google and hope the people will run into it are over because online marketing has become so much more complex. The good news is, for medical care you have a very distinct patient audience because demographics and medical treatments correlate a lot. For example, a hair transplant treatment is generally interesting for men so we don’t have to target women. Dentistry is usually required more by the elderly population rather than younger generations.

That’s an interesting point. So you use Facebook or other targetable technologies to zero in on the audiences. Apart from the patients you also have other players in the medical space, such as doctors and insurers. How do doctors react to Qunomedical? And where do the insurance companies stand on this?

Many of the stakeholders in healthcare really do understand what we do end we’ve already been around for 4 years. When we entered the market we expected a lot more backlash from everyone, but it also very much depends on how you build your business and how you keep your communication channels open. So when I started, I made sure we were not hiding from anyone and that we were out there looking for dialogue and conversation. Not everyone is going to be your friend from day one and will think your idea is amazing. A lot of ideas are flooding the market and you don’t know which ones will stick. Showing up and maintaining presence is really important.

I think doctors are in an ambivalent state. We help doctors manage their patient population and we help them attract more patients, therefore revenue. They do understand why a digital product like ours makes sense, but at the same time, they are kind of scared that a digital product like ours may also take patients away. I think that’s just free-market regulation and patients should be able to go wherever they think they get the best care.

On the insurance side of things, they are generally a little bit more conservative. Many of them understand the concept and we are also working with a few already, but they are in a wait-and-see position. They are too large and too risk-averse to jump right in. I think they are waiting for us to grow and prove ourselves in the market – and it’s on us to do exactly that.

That’s great. It seems trust lies at the core of the experience that you provide. If I go to your website and you send me to a dentist, in Mexico or Hungary or whichever country it is, how do you build trust?

In order to get all of it right, we have to think about trust at every single step. Yes, our platform is digital and data-driven, but in the end, our product is all about building trust. Unfortunately, there is really no easy answer on how to build trust. Yet, I do believe it’s in the details. How do you present your brand or design your user experience on the website? How does customer service show up? A big part of it is choosing the right doctors to work with, the kind of people who are aligned with the levels of quality we want to uphold. We are closely connected to the patients throughout the whole journey. Our dedicated patient managers get on the phone with patients 24/7 and we work with the most amazing doctors to make patients feel at ease. Once they return from a treatment, we follow up with them and make sure they are safe and sound. Many of these things can be supported by technology and this is what our goal is. We want to design a personalized healthcare experience that is tech and data-enabled with a human touch.

It sounds like you are building a very complicated business though, like a virtual hospital that you are staffing with people from all around the world.

It can be complicated. We have many loose ends that need to be tied together, but that is where our competitive advantage lies. We are managing something that is so complex that it is really hard to copy. I spoke to an investor the other day who asked me what my competitive advantage was. I said “patient experience”. He countered that patient experience was not a unique selling point and I was like “excuse me?”.

That is the one thing that is ultra-hard to copy. People always think it’s technology. Technology is easily reproducible if you hire enough engineers, but thinking about what is at the core of what you do and what is at the core of the emotions that you generate among your customers – I think that is extremely important, especially when you work in healthcare.

Read Part 2 of this interview to find out more about how Sophie manages a team of 30 different nationalities and the challenges of raising money as a woman.

About Sophie Chung:

Sophie Chung, MD, is the founder and CEO of Qunomedical, a digital health platform focused on medical tourism that is providing patients worldwide access to high-quality affordable healthcare. Before that she served as Director of Healthcare Strategy at Zocdoc, a healthcare technology startup focused on locating doctors and booking appointments. Sophie also previously worked as a project manager for McKinsey & Company’s Healthcare Practice in Germany where she worked with government, hospitals, health insurance, and pharmaceutical industry clients. After earning her MD degree from the Medical University of Vienna in 2008, Sophie gained first-hand experience in treating patients as a doctor in Australia, and tackling the complex issues involved in providing people with access to healthcare whilst working at an NGO in Cambodia. Qunomedical is a participant of the German Accelerator New York Class 2020-1.

German Accelerator Coffee Sessions:

#GAcoffeesessions is our interview series that aims to capture the lives and careers of thriving German entrepreneurs around the world. This month’s edition is a tribute to Month of #GAccelerateHer, German Accelerator’s campaign for the empowerment of female business leaders in honor of #IWD2020. Keep a lookout on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook as well as our blog for more to come!