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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Q&A - Alison Platt: The human factor

Alison Platt is a divisional managing director at Bupa, responsible for Europe and North America. She took up this post in 2009, having previously been responsible for development activity across the firm, working to build and create a business recognised as a leader in healthcare. Alison was also chief operating officer of Bupa Hospitals. Prior to that, she spent 11 years in Bupa's insurance business, latterly as deputy managing director.

Before joining Bupa, Alison held a number of key positions at British Airways. In May 2009 she became chair of ‘Opportunity Now', which seeks to accelerate change for women in the workplace. Alison was a non-executive director of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office between 2005 and 2010, and in the 2011 New Year Honours was appointed a CMG for her services to the Board of the FCO.

 

What does your role as managing director for Bupa’s Europe and North American operations entail?
My businesses include health insurance, hospitals, primary care clinics and dental centres. Across mainland Europe we have 1.5 million customers.

I’m also responsible for Health Dialog, a leading US-based provider of health analytics and care management services that works with health plans and public insurers to help manage the cost and quality of healthcare. We currently support over 18 million people.

As part of the leadership team, my role is to help Bupa become recognised as a leader in the field of healthcare, not just in the UK, but globally.

How has Bupa changed since you started working for the company?
We have grown and diversified. Bupa is a leading international healthcare group with 10 million customers in more than 190 countries. While we are best known for our health insurance, we are so much more. We also run care homes for older people and hospitals, as well as providing workplace health services, health assessments and chronic disease management services, including health coaching and home healthcare.

Importantly, we’ve invested to develop our capability in key disease areas such as dementia, chronic disease and cancer. This has enabled us to improve the value we bring to our customers across the world.

From your experience of international healthcare, which healthcare system do you feel is the best?
While I don’t believe that any one country has the perfect healthcare system, there is something to be learnt from healthcare provision in all countries. Of our core overseas businesses, the US leads the way with empowering people to participate in their decision-making.

In Spain, Sanitas is pioneering a public-private partnership that has seen them successfully take responsibility for the healthcare of an entire region in Manises in Valencia.

In Australia, their social care funding model and national capacity planning helps to predict the number of older people requiring care in the future. This helps them to plan for the consequent increase in social care capacity that is required — something we strongly recommend that we develop in the UK.

Our experience in the UK and overseas suggests that the most successful healthcare systems have strong core public health provision supplemented by a dynamic and competitive independent sector, in which companies and individuals each play a part.

You are a private company, but have no shareholders. How does that work?
Bupa only exists for its customers. As we have no shareholders, we can reinvest 
our profits to provide better healthcare for more people. Our status allows us to take a long-term view — we do not 
have to respond to short-term share 
price movements.

What impact do you believe the proposed NHS reforms will have on your business?
The aim of the government’s NHS reforms, particularly the desire to put the patient at the heart of the NHS, is something we support. Measuring health outcomes and giving patients greater choice and control over the services they receive has to be a good thing. However, it will clearly be a huge challenge for the NHS to deliver such wide-scale change at the same time as finding efficiency savings of £15-20bn.

Debate over the Health and Social Care Bill has become intensely political, with the listening exercise, introduced in May, leading to a ‘pause’ in the timescales for implementation of the reforms. Given that, in the short-term, we don’t see significant material opportunities in GP commissioning, the immediate focus will inevitably be on cost reduction and delivering this year’s financial targets.

Looking beyond this, we believe we have a lot to offer and want to continue to support the NHS as it has to achieve more for less. For example, we provide patients with convalescent care when they no longer need to be in hospital and we help over 14,500 NHS patients manage their condition at home or in another out-of-hospital setting, improving patient satisfaction, helping stretched NHS resources and reducing waiting lists.

The airline and insurance industries seem to be worlds apart in many ways. What parallels (if any) would you draw between the two industries?
People, people, people. British Airways and Bupa stand or fall on their reputation for delivering superb customer care through their people.

Across the sea, how have the US health reforms changed your business model?
In the US our Health Dialog business works with health plans and their members to help people manage long-term chronic conditions.

In the short term the US health reforms have certainly caused a level of uncertainty across the healthcare sector in the US. In the long term, however, we very much support the aims of the reforms, in particular their focus on rewarding positive health outcomes for people as opposed to rewarding levels of activity and treatment. There are a number of opportunities for us — for example, the reforms will enable us to take our services, such as our expertise in shared decision-making, to a broader range of providers and patients.

What are three key qualities that you would identify in a good leader?
I’ve been very fortunate to work with a number of great people in my career so far. For me, the common threads would be:
• The ability to inspire great confidence, not only in the future but in individuals
• A genuine interest in the people they work with
• An obsessive focus on delivery and execution.

You are the chair of ‘Opportunity Now’, an organisation that aims to provide an inclusive workplace for women, and were cited by The Telegraph as being “the woman who hopes to neuter gender prejudice”. The actuarial profession has a high proportion of female entrants at graduate level, but the numbers 
fall significantly at senior levels. 
What more do you believe employers could do to encourage a higher retention of women?
Diversity is a key factor in helping 
public and private sector organisations 
to compete on a global scale. It is a business imperative and a strategic priority that delivers competitive advantage. For the past 20 years, Opportunity Now has worked tirelessly with employers to reiterate the importance of women’s participation and progression.

For employers to create a diverse and inclusive workplace, they need to engage with their employees and ensure that they know they matter as individuals. To keep the top female talent, employers must demonstrate that they support balanced boards, have an equal pay policy and create agile organisations that introduce a flexible approach to job design.

Fundamentally, Opportunity Now shines a light on best-practice organisations and shares as much practical help as possible.

What is your view on mandating female representation on boards?
I don’t agree with mandating. At both organisations I’ve worked in I have worked in teams at all levels, where all that mattered was performance. At Bupa, women occupy a significant proportion of not only the top executive roles but seats on our board.

Who have been your role models through your career?
Probably too many to mention. I’ve been very, very fortunate.

How do you measure your success?
Easy. Do what you committed to do. Every time.

What do you do to relax?
Spend time with my family. If I can get out on my bike with my husband and son, I’m happy.

What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve been given?
You can do anything if you work hard enough.

Human factor