A group confident in turning out hits

2022: the difficult second album for Circle Health Group? Chief medical officer Dr Paul Manning reflects on recent award-winning successes and outlines plans for future releases.

Dr Paul Manning

The arrival of 2022 marks two years since Circle Health Group acquired BMI Healthcare and became the largest independent provider of hospital services in the UK. 

Back then, none of us could, in our wildest dreams, have predicted how those two years would play out.   

It was just days after the integration of BMI Healthcare into Circle Health Group’s network, that our chief executive Paolo Pieri put the group’s entire business plan on hold to support the NHS during the pandemic.   

Alongside clinical and non-clinical staff alike, our consultants stepped in to support the NHS, seeing 700,000 NHS patients and carrying out more than 30,000 cancer operations.  

In total last year, you, our consultants, helped us to see more than 1.8m patients and deliver over 255,000 theatre procedures. 

Let’s pause and think about that for a second. It’s extraordinary and it doesn’t even include the tireless hours being put in by our consultants in the NHS. It’s no exaggeration to say yours was a crucial contribution to keeping the healthcare system running and saving countless lives in the process. 

The increased number of complex surgical cases we took on at Circle meant hospital teams were working at full capacity for months at a time. 

The front line 

There are so many stories of our colleagues working tirelessly to support what was a national effort. 

Circle’s Runnymede Hospital in Lyne, Surrey, for example, ran three operating theatres at capacity and routinely carried out up to six major trauma and cancer operations daily on behalf of Ashford and St Peter’s Hospital (ASPH). 

The paediatric ward at ASPH was also relocated to Runnymede – much to the delight of the team at the hospital who enjoyed caring for and supporting children and their parents. 

While the pandemic raged and our staff provided this invaluable support to battle Covid, a huge effort was underway behind the scenes to make sure Circle and BMI came together as seamlessly as possible and these efforts were not derailed.   

Corporate mergers are renowned for being fiendishly tricky to get right at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. 

There were thousands of staff to be taken on board – Circle’s headcount increased over 1,000% to 16,000 – and large-scale debt financing to be secured, not to mention the concurrent acquisition of 30 properties. 

Taking a toll 

The same colleagues organising this also had to support colleagues on whom the pandemic was inevitably taking its toll. 

To help staff cope with the challenge of increased workloads and uncertainty, our people team swung into action, launching initiatives to help staff deal with these unprecedented working conditions, while also offering advice and support around anxiety, depression, talking to children about Covid-19, and working remotely while caring for family members. 

We even launched Thrive Mental Health, an NHS-approved mental health app designed to provide users with preventative strategies and help for managing stress and anxiety.   

Across Circle, our colleagues stepped into the breach to help one another. 

Take the Hampshire Clinic, where the physiotherapy department began running pilates and hydrotherapy sessions for colleagues to help teams from a variety of departments de-stress and engage with each other. 

Stories like this were legion and there really should have been a trophy for each and every one of our colleagues when, despite all the challenges thrown at us, Circle was named Private Hospital Group of the Year by HealthInvestor UK and LaingBuisson. 

It was also a mark of everyone’s efforts when we were voted one of the Top 25 Big Companies to work for in the Sunday Times’s annual awards for 2020-21. 

What comes next? 

So, yes, it has been quite a couple of years. The big question is how can we follow up on this gargantuan effort? 

It feels a little like a band trying to follow up on a blockbuster album. As if 2022 is time to release that difficult second album. Well, I’m pleased to say we are ready for that challenge – and I think we’ve got some big hits on our hands. 

These all stem from a focus on the same core beliefs we’ve had since Circle Health’s foundation in 2004, namely a commitment to empowering people with the latest technology, modern facilities and an environment that supports them.  

A lot has changed in the last 18 years and one thing that has become crystal clear is how important it is that we do not fall into the trap so many do in healthcare, which is to be analogue in a digital age. 

Consumers are more unforgiving than ever; they expect the speed of Google, the design of Apple, the responsiveness of Uber and the convenience of Amazon. 

We want to give our consultants access to this brave new world with our new consumer-facing strategy and our multi-million-pound investment programme. 

Digital-first strategy 

Our new consumer-facing strategy began in 2021 and it has been paying dividends over the first few months of 2022. 

We were the first operator to introduce direct consumer booking online and the latest data shows that more than 80,000 consumers have now booked directly online.   

In addition, we have moved the majority of our consultants’ diaries online to enable patients to book directly at a time of their choice with their doctor of choice. This is also unique within the industry and puts the consumer in the driving seat for the first time in sector’s history.   

This consumer growth strategy has been underpinned by significant investment of £1.5m in our tech platforms and delivered by our in-house development team. This team have successfully rolled out a digital health platform across the group, with full e-health records. 

In 2021, we invested £100m in facilities and services across our hospital network. This has seen the arrival of American-designed scanners, fully digitalised patient pathways and a partnership with Spanish-based Ribera Salud, who are widely acknowledged to have the most advanced hospital technology systems in the world. 

In 2022, we continue to focus on investment and regeneration, with the next stage of our £165m programme of delivering new technology and infrastructure to hospitals across the group. 

The focus has been increasing capacity, both in terms of patient numbers and in additional consulting space.   

These projects will mirror some recently completed programmes, like the £6m investment at The Park Hospital in Nottingham to build new laminar flow theatre, outpatient reception and dedicated treatment rooms, alongside a new CT scanner, digital X-ray and fluoroscopy room. 

Projects like this have been directed by consultants whom we always turn to in order to understand what they need to best serve their patients. 

Landmark partnership 

This focus on patient-centricity is what led to January’s announcement that Circle and GE Health­care were entering into a landmark ten-year partnership deal to provide our hospitals with industry leading diagnostic equipment. 

The agreement was set up to give our consultants the tech they needed to make faster, more targeted and more informed decisions.  

GE Healthcare will be providing a wide range of medical equipment from across its extensive portfolio. 

Over the course of the ten-year period, each of Circle’s 50 hospitals will be receiving different GE products from CT and MRI scanners to ultrasound and patient monitoring.   

The partnership is also an opportunity to make use of GE’s expertise in servicing and consultancy. The deal provides an exclusive servicing contract to maintain all of Circle’s medical imaging equipment, including technology that has not been provided by GE. 

Digital consultancy

In addition to the servicing, as part of Circle’s IT regeneration, GE will be providing a bespoke digital consultancy. They will be playing an important role in the continued process of integration taking place across the business as well as supporting the introduction of electronic patient records.   

The objective is to give you the very best equipment and facilities possible to deliver the best patient outcomes.   

Our sights have also been set overseas. The group became the first operator to enter China, successfully opening two highly profitable hospitals in Shanghai. 

The first of these facilities, called Circle Harmony Xinyong Clinic, has a full suite of services including primary care, diagnostics, operating theatres, endoscopy and paediatrics. 

The operational model brought together leading doctors from the UK and Shanghai’s top teaching hospitals. 

Building on this success is part of the group’s long-term vision, with an imminent pipeline for 20 further hospitals across China and, in turn, offering much greater opportunities to consultants to expand their experience and reach. 

The next few years will be very different to the ones that followed the 2020 creation of Circle Health Group. Very different indeed. 

But, as we come out of the pandemic, we do so with a story of dedication and selflessness by our consultants and wider staff that is quite humbling. 

We are confident that in this post-pandemic era we can repay that effort and offer our consultants a very bright future indeed.