In A Post-Pandemic World, Nadiah Wan Steers Growth At Malaysia’s TMC Life Sciences

By Danielle Keeton-Olsen

Nadiah Wan had been running TMC Life Sciences for a little over a year when the pandemic hit in early 2020. Virtually overnight, Malaysia’s borders slammed shut, cutting off international patients—a lucrative source of income for the Malaysia-listed hospital group—while domestic travel restrictions curtailed appointments and elective surgeries. She quickly reprioritized, juggling ambitious expansion plans with the public health emergency.

Now, as Covid-19 recedes, TMC’s 38-year-old executive director and group CEO has breathing room to pick up where she left off: to make TMC one of the biggest private hospitals in Southeast Asia. When she spoke by video from Kuala Lumpur in late May, Wan had recently overseen the opening of a new wing in TMC’s flagship Thomson Hospital Kota Damansara. The upgrade at the private hospital will triple the bed count to 600 and bolster its range of services, including its world-class fertility treatments, with a new cancer center and more specialist outpatient clinics. That growth will also give a boost to TMC’s parent company, the Singapore-based Thomson Medical, which owns 70% of TMC. Thomson Medical, listed in Singapore, is itself controlled by Singapore billionaire Peter Lim.

However, she thinks the pandemic did bring a new mindset to the healthcare industry. “What Covid did was it made a lot of people in healthcare realize we need to be a lot more adaptive and dynamic,” Wan says. “Healthcare is a very risk-averse industry but, with Covid, there was simply no choice, so people had to forge ahead with whatever resources they had.”

The first few months of the pandemic rattled TMC. Net profit plunged 43% to 13 million ringgit ($3 million) in the ten months ending in June 2020 (the full reporting period for that year). Its fertility business was particularly hit hard by the slowdown in medical tourism. Revenue from international patients, which had made up about 15% of sales before the pandemic, plummeted as Covid-19 led to region-wide travel restrictions and quarantines.

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TMC has since charted a steady recovery. Patient numbers are returning to pre-pandemic levels as demand for TMC’s fertility and hospital services picks up, alongside a growing trickle of medical tourists since Malaysia’s borders fully reopened on April 1.

For the first nine months of the financial year ended in March, net profit rose 9% to 18 million ringgit (year on year), on a 17% increase in sales to 173 million ringgit. Shares recovered to pre-pandemic levels to hit 0.8 ringgit in March 2021, but have declined by a third since then in line with Malaysia’s broader healthcare index, dragged down by global uncertainty.

Going forward TMC should benefit from macro trends—that include Malaysia’s demographic shift to an aging population—and by aggressively positioning itself as a market leader, says Tina Banerjee, a Bangalore-based healthcare analyst published on the online platform Smartkarma. “The company is consistently witnessing increasing patient volume,” Banerjee says by email. “Recovery of fertility business and [the Kota Damansara hospital] bed addition should further accelerate the growth momentum.” Wan noted in an interview earlier this year that the new wing should mean double-digit topline growth in 2022, though ramping up capacity—with substantial investment in new equipment—will weigh on net profit for a few years.

Healthcare spending in Malaysia is projected to grow 26% from $16 billion this year to $20 billion by 2025, and reach $176 billion in Southeast Asia over the same period, according to data firm Statista. To tap that demand for medical services, last year TMC opened two clinics, one for gastric and reflux and another for heart palpitations, which brought the total number of outpatient specialty clinics to 154. In addition to its pharmacy in southern Johor Bahru, just across from Singapore, TMC is building an integrated medical hub that will eventually comprise a 500-bed tertiary hospital, medical tower and retail mall. It is scheduled to open in 2028.

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Yet Wan expects assisted reproduction to remain the lodestone of its services, projecting it will eventually contribute about 40% of revenue. TMC, an early pioneer in fertility treatment in Malaysia—holding the nation’s record for the highest number of babies conceived by in vitro fertilization by a single practice—operates six fertility centers across the country.

While Malaysia’s share of the medical tourism industry, valued at $362 million in 2019, is just a fraction of Thailand’s $8.6 billion market, TMC has carved a niche among female patients from China, Indonesia and Singapore. She says international clients are attracted by TMC’s proximity and high-quality services, some of which—in the case of IVF and egg freezing—are difficult or illegal to obtain at home.

Wan takes pride in TMC’S training of fertility specialists for the region. “With fertility, you do need a certain kind of personality,” she says. “There’s the clinical part but there’s also the psychosocial part where you’re counseling your patients, reassuring them.”

A Harvard graduate in biochemical sciences with a master’s degree in public health nutrition from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Wan returned home after getting her education to Kuala Lumpur to work with Boston Consulting Group. (She had interned with the company in the U.S. as an undergraduate.) After two years there, she spent another five with Malaysia’s Sunway Medical Centre, rising to chief operating officer of clinical services, before joining TMC in 2017.

Though she says her passion for healthcare has pushed her to explore different avenues of growth, especially healthtech, Wan says her main priority is building a sustainable business. She notes that hospitals need to have long-term plans. “When you talk about all the investments that go into healthcare and how long it takes to gestate, and you’re serving a population over lifecycles, you need a business that can stay,” she says.

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Thomson Medical, where Wan is an executive director, in 2020 set up a new arm called Thomson X to partner with healthtech startups like Singapore-based WhiteCoat for a one-stop app for the group’s obstetrics, gynecology and pediatric patients. Wan envisions other possible collaborations with the public hospital sector, and building an integrated health platform focused on patients’ emotional wellbeing and preventative care. “When we talk about accountability, patient accountability or ownership of their healthcare journey is very important.”

With the pandemic waning, she reflects on lessons from navigating the challenging environment. “When you become a CEO, whole boundaries between work and life basically disappear,” she says.

“One of the things that I’m starting to learn is to say no,” she adds. “In the beginning you feel like you have a lot to contribute and [obligations] tend to kind of start piling up. At some point you need to start thinking about the things you’re committing your time to because essentially your time becomes your biggest constraint.”

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Photo Source: Eiffel Chong for Forbes Asia

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