ConneXionsAsia’s Dawn Soo successfully swapped her physician role for the business side of health care
The academic choices an 18-year-old student makes will obviously have an influence on their career. But when that student opts to study medicine, their future looks pretty well set.
However, having trained and worked as a physician for several years, Dawn Soo made a very successful move into the business side of health care, building on her people skills and medical know-how.
After completing an MBA at business school INSEAD in 2012, Soo co-founded DocDoc, a website that enables users to find doctors and book appointments online.
Then, in 2014, the Singaporean joined ConneXionsAsia (CXA), a tech company offering HR departments a platform for managing health, benefits and insurance. Soo is now the company’s chief wellness officer and head of Hong Kong operations.
“At 18, I didn’t really have a clue what I wanted to do,” Soo explains. “I liked the sciences and my parents, being Asian, had a big part to play in my decision [to study medicine].
“But I did start enjoying medical school and maybe more so when I started with clinical rotations and got to meet and interact with patients. I have always thought that it’s really fascinating how complete strangers would open up to you and let you into their lives within the first five minutes of the conversation, because you’re their doctor or even just a medical student.”
On graduation, Soo spent three-and-a-half years working in internal medicine at the National University, Singapore’s teaching hospital. “At the end of this period, I was feeling a little bit burnt out. I’d found I really liked managing the patients and I thought family medicine might be a nice thing to do – I did enjoy my year doing it. While I really liked the health care industry and I thought I wanted to stay in it, I wanted to find out what else I could do beyond clinical medicine.”
After Soo’s MBA, she thought she would join a pharmaceutical company, but a chance meeting with her partners-to-be led to setting up of DocDoc. “As the only local [Singaporean] in the team and because I knew the medical community, I did the sales and business development.” For the first six months, the role involved knocking on doors at private hospitals, putting her on the other side of the fence.
“You are just a sales person who’s made to wait, sometimes for hours, before the doctor invites you in and gives you five minutes. It was so hard and very humbling.” Now, though, she thinks this was a necessary skin-thickening process.
“Soon after, I had to start hiring sales people and if I hadn’t gone through that experience how would I have got them to do anything?”
Things started getting a little easier after her first year with DocDoc, but within another 12 months she was again thinking of exploring other career options. When CXA CEO Rosaline Koo found out she was considering leaving DocDoc, she invited Soo to test drive a position in the company to see if it would appeal to her.
“They were looking for someone to manage their wellness element by driving the programme design strategy and defining the spec of the wellness product.”
Her first year with the company was largely spent learning about the insurance industry and shadowing sales people. “This is primarily a business-to-business company, which was really different to what I was used to.”
CXA gives those funding health services more control over their budgets and those using them, more flexibility and choice. The business already has 500 corporate clients in Singapore that use the platform, which helps them decide health budgets and lets employees choose whether they, for example, assign less of their package to cover GP visits and use the money saved to pay for their gym membership.
CXA’s Hong Kong operation goes live in January, but support from the company’s established infrastructure makes it less daunting for Soo.
“We had to hire a team and we do have numbers to hit. What’s quite nice, though, is that starting up in a new country is a bit like having your own start-up, except you know there’s always help coming from headquarters if you absolutely need it.”
Management experience has taught Soo that finding the right person is more important than finding the right skill set. “The fit is more important than the skills as they can be taught,” she says.
And she thinks her days as a practising physician helped to shape her more measured perspective on life. She recalls the time a 17-year-old was admitted to her hospital after fainting – only for staff to discover the teenager had an untreatable tumour.
“We had to speak to the parents about letting him go, but they just weren’t ready. I remember the night he passed away. I was on night duty and you could hear the parents’ cries from a block away.
“I think when every young medical student qualifies, you think you’ve got all this knowledge and you can do so much. But the more patients you see, the more you start to realise that, actually, all you have to offer sometimes is comfort.”
Today Soo is more concerned with prevention rather than cure and this seems to chime with her personal philosophy.
“Actually, if you are pretty healthy and your body allows you to do what you want to do, that’s a huge blessing. So then, without trivialising stuff, nothing else is that big a deal and most things can be sorted out.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Medical marvel.