Simplyhealth appointed Sneh Khemka as CEO in March. In his first interview he speaks to Health & Protection about transforming the insurer, digital healthcare product evolution, why being kind matters and his unusual connection to Nigel Farage.
Why have you taken on this role?
I was thinking about how I can be involved in an organisation which is a force for good and not just about shareholder financial return, so while Simplyhealth is a commercially driven, for profit organisation, that profit is meaningfully and realistically reinvested back into healthcare. That fits in with my personal values about where I am in my life right now – about having an opportunity to really contribute in a meaningful way to the healthcare of the average man and woman of the United Kingdom.
Simplyhealth has been around for 150 years but for the last five years we have realised there is a chance to pivot and to change the organisation to meet the demands of the modern, digital consumer and so moving away from being the traditional cash plan provider that we’ve been into being a much more modern and relevant company that can provide affordable, accessible and meaningful solutions.
And it’s a CEO role. It’s nice to be in charge, I’m 50% clinical and 50% commercial and so being CEO of a company like this is a great opportunity to use those two different skillsets.
What are your immediate objectives and challenges in your new role?
In the short term I’m turning over the stones of how the organisation works, what products we offer to the market and how we interact with our consumers. So the immediate thing is to modernise aspects of that especially as we move from analogue into digital channels and to help our customer base to move with us.
We want to look at our products and propositions to market and how we distribute them so that we are providing ever more relevant and more expansive products and solutions that go beyond cash plans and debt plans.
And we want to look at the moonshot of the future, what is going to be relevant in a 10-15 year time horizon when it comes to healthcare and its delivery and how we as a company are prepared for that and are able to meet that demand – here I am talking about things like genomic-based medicine.
You’ve taken over from Romana Abdin, what will you retain and change from her time in charge?
Romana did an excellent job at the helm – divesting some businesses and acquiring other businesses as well as putting an operating infrastructure and team in place which is absolutely fantastic.
So taking over the helm, I’ve got a very, very strong business that’s already firing on many cylinders but a new person coming in is required to change and modify. So some of the things I’ve talked about is our products, our propositions, our digital engagement, how we view our consumer base, expanding the company, acquiring outside the company and setting up new ventures within the Simplyhealth family are all on the immediate horizon.
What lessons and successes will you take from your time at Aetna and try to adapt and develop at Simplyhealth?
With Aetna, I had a lot of international experience setting up companies and health systems in different parts of the world. I helped set up the NHS in Qatar, set up a big data analytics company in South Korea in conjunction with Samsung and set up a brand new digital health company in India which grew to $50m in revenue.
Looking through those three different lenses of different healthcare systems and what works in terms of data analytics and health services, I’ve learned a huge amount – bringing that learning and that commerciality from those other countries back to the UK is what I’m hoping to be able to translate.
Who has been your biggest mentor at Aetna or even earlier in your career, say at Bupa?
If I look back at people who have most influenced me, the one characteristic that constantly comes through are those who have been kind – more so, than those who have been commercially savvy or fantastic at business. Andrew Vallance-Owen was my first boss at Bupa, who was the medical director of Bupa – he always stands out in my mind as being just a fantastic manager and a kind human being who taught me a lot and helped me progress in business.
What mantra do you live your life by?
One is around the contribution of business to the world and society – that this must go around far beyond making money for yourselves or for shareholders. We fundamentally have a responsibility to improve the world and to work in a sustainable manner which improves our environment, communities and people’s health.
It’s important to maintain a good work-life balance. I work to live and that means investing in time and effort in my young family – that’s very, very important to me.
You need to be kind and considerate – yes, as a CEO, you need to make difficult decisions and you need to effect change but to do it constructively and with support along the way.
What is your message to advisers at this extraordinary time?
The pandemic has caused us to have a once in a lifetime rethink as a society about how we regard health and rather than be a component of what an employer should think about, it is now one of the most important obligations that an employer has to think about for their employees.
The knowledge and demand around healthcare is bigger than ever before and it’s a great chance for our industry to help and support with this change and to grow our businesses on the back of this change.
As a trained surgeon, what should government’s key priorities be in reducing wait times for surgery?
We should recognise that NHS funding, as it has been, is going to be difficult to sustain in a purely publicly funded system. We are going to have to make concessions as a country around what the NHS can and can’t afford to do, especially when it comes to elective surgery around hips, knees, eyes, hernias, things like that.
There will be an emerging funding gap which despite repeated pleas and requests for the government to fund, is going to be difficult to fund through our system of taxation and there will come a point in UK society fairly soon where people will look to personal savings and personal finance schemes which will help them to access quick surgical solutions and this is where something like Simplyhealth really steps into the fold.
What did your time in radio teach you?
I had a regular call-in show which had about 700 calls and we took about 25 questions. I followed on from Nigel Farage on LBC so we often got his fanbase listening to the early part of the show.
As a radio doctor, I was given an honorary degree in public health because when you are going out to 2.5 million to 3 million listeners in a hour, talking about a very wide range of medical conditions, you are educating a lot more people than an average doctor can do with direct patient contact. So I helped to inform the public and helped them to think about their own healthcare and to seek help where they needed it.
It was a lot of fun. We had a wide variety of calls – quite trivial things which were important to the individual to actually very serious and heart wrenching things. But the overriding thing is that human beings are looking for human beings to give them compassion and advice in the medical sphere. And so as we plough into a digital era we need to recognise that medicine will always have a hallowed place in people’s mind where they need human to human interaction.
What would success look like for you at the end of 2021? And five years from now?
At the end of this year, I would have settled into the organisation and understood about the things we need to do over the transformation program, which I’m hoping to bring in over the next five years. We’re looking to get a solid and consolidated position and have had a good year.
But the next five years of Simplyhealth are going to be five years of change and transformation. We’re looking at Simplyhealth and how it can be really relevant to the healthcare needs of the future which goes beyond the health financing solutions that we currently provide and goes much more into the provision of digital healthcare solutions that are relevant, affordable and accessible for the every day person of the United Kingdom.
And so at the end of five years, if we have been able to make a dent on the healthcare outcomes of the United Kingdom and helped the everyday man and woman with their healthcare, while being commercially successful, then I’ll deem myself to have been successful.