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 Entrepreneur tackles high health costs with her dream hospital


 Elmarie Marais describes the friendly, busy vibe at the hospital that she built with a mixture of pride and amazement of someone who almost can’t believe that her dream has come true.

And her pride extends beyond just the physical structure and day-to-day operations of her Centurion Day Hospital to the fact that she finds herself on the forefront of a trend that can save South Africans millions of rands.

One of the major contributors to high medical costs in South Africa, explains Elmarie, is the fact that the vast majority of small medical procedures are done in expensive overnight hospitals with top-of-the-range theatres. It is like using a costly high-end computer to do the work of a pocket calculator.

Because Elmarie’s Centurion Day Hospital specialises in one-day procedures that do not require an overnight stay, the cost of an operation done in one of her two theatres is less than half of that charged by an overnight hospital.

There is another advantage that has boosted the trend towards day hospitals all over the world: because the patients who visit day hospitals for small operations are not ill, there is no risk of hospital-acquired diseases, says Elmarie.

No wonder the hospital, which opened its doors less than a year and a half ago, is already a hive of activity as more and more general practitioners, dentists, gynaecologists and a range of other medical specialists throughout Centurion choose to do their theatre work there.

Elmarie says her Centurion Day Hospital is the result of a “long dream” of her and her husband Charl, a medical doctor who had come across a similar small private hospital in England while on a study tour. He loved the privacy and the level of care and safety that the hospital was able to offer, and expressed his wish to be able to work in such an environment to Elmarie, who was managing his practice at the time.

Elmarie also happens to be a formidable entrepreneur who stepped out of the corporate world of medical repping at the age of 28 to start her own placement agency before taking over the management of Charl’s practice.

As a “side project”, she has also started a beauty salon in an unused room, which today has grown into a state-of-the-art beauty treatment centre employing four therapists and a doctor.

Meanwhile, her first step towards owning her own hospital one day was to get a license to operate a small facility with a single operating theatre in Centurion, and she built a clientele of mostly local dentists who liked the convenience of having an affordable and accessible theatre nearby.

About five years ago, Elmarie threw herself into her hospital dream when she applied to upgrade the license to two theatres and a procedure room.

The building and running of private hospitals is highly regulated, and Elmarie describes an eye-watering procedure that requires a prospective hospital owner to identify a suitably located property and to have a full set of plans for the facility drawn up and approved, including plans for the equipment such as gas storage tanks. Once construction starts, several inspections are required before the Department of Health signs off after a final inspection.

Elmarie identified a house in Glover Avenue in Lyttelton, Centurion, and set about having plans drawn up for a mostly new structure to house the hospital, with the original house forming the lobby section.

The banks were willing to finance the multi-million-rand project, but required an owner’s contribution of as much as 45%, way beyond the means of the Marais couple. Elmarie remembered the Small Business Development Corporation from her days as a BCom student at the University of Pretoria, and she approached its successor, Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), for finance.

After a thorough due diligence process, BUSINESS/PARTNERS agreed to come in as part-owner of the property, and to put up 100% of the finance for the project. As part of the deal, Elmarie will have a chance to buy back the ownership of the property in future.

Since the launch of the hospital in May last year, Elmarie has been able to stay close to her projected turnover, which she calculated very conservatively. The fact that she was able to bring over her clientele of mainly dentists from her previous, smaller facility has helped to get the hospital off to a running start.

About half of the available timeslots for the theatres are already booked, with more doctors signing up every week. The hospital employs a full-time doctor-relationship manager to help spread the message that they don’t have to make use of the expensive and often slower-moving large hospitals all the time.

The challenge is to convince doctors who have only ever used the large hospitals to move out of their comfort zones and try the new day hospital, says Elmarie, whose strongest entrepreneurial trait is marketing. Clearly, another strong characteristic of hers is delegation, which is why she is able to run her hospital and beauty treatment centre at the same time. While she heads up the hospital as full-time manager, she has appointed two excellent managers at her beauty treatment centre who keep her updated on a daily basis.

Looking forward, Elmarie has already applied for extending her license to change the day hospital’s procedure room into a third operating theatre, and the economic logic of the hospital’s offering to doctors, medical insurers and patience will ensure a steady increase of customers.

Her “long dream” looks set to stay true for a long time.




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