The HI Profile: Bupa's Tony Wood

Health Insurance editor David Sawers poses the questions

Bupa’s Tony Wood has been in charge of sales during a major period of transformation for the organisation’s UK business. Health Insurance editor David Sawers asks him for his take on open referral and the dispute with BMI Healthcare

Tony Wood could not have picked a busier – or perhaps more challenging – time to join Bupa’s UK business as sales director.

Against the backdrop of a contracting private medical insurance (PMI) market and rising healthcare costs, the organisation’s British unit is undergoing fundamental changes in the way it operates.

Last year, the provider decided to sell its individual and group protection business, Bupa Health Assurance (it would merge with AXA and Friends Provident to become Friends Life), while recent months have seen the introduction of a bold new strategy – open referral – which radically alters the PMI proposition. A high profile dispute with Britain’s largest private hospital group and an investigation into the way the country’s private healthcare system operates by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) have also been top of the agenda in recent months. But while Wood does not appear to be fazed, was he really aware of the scale of change underway at the organisation when he accepted the role?

A PERIOD OF TRANSFORMATION

“We knew as a business that we were on a journey of transformation,” he tells me. “We have been for some time and I think that continues. As a business we are changing and evolving all around the world. I like change.”

During Wood’s previous role as sales director of MBF in Australia, he saw at first hand the merger of the coutry’s second and third largest medical insurers to become the largest privately owned player there.

“We had to merge people, computer systems, products and late last year we finally moved to the Bupa brand in Australia,” he says. “That’s the kind of journey I’ve been on.”

In any case, there was little doubt, Wood says, that the UK PMI industry was crying out for change. Statistics from market analyst Laing & Buisson appear to back that up, with PMI subscriber numbers falling by 10.2% since 2008. But as the numbers continued to tumble and as some big names left the market – Standard Life and Groupama most notably – Wood said he was “surprised” that the UK PMI industry as a whole did not seem to have a plan or an approach of how to stem the slide.

“It was easy for me to very quickly see that the UK was a declining market,” he explains. “From our point of view we’ve actually been growing market share in a declining market and that’s actually not a good place to be. I was just a bit surprised that there just didn’t seem to be a strategy and yet everyone I talked to expressed their concern about that. Everyone, every intermediary. There wasn’t one who didn’t express concern about the fact the market was declining and what its future was going to be.”

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