Previously no one but traditional Chinese medicine doctors who made out the prescription could read the scrawl. But now we feed such information into a computer and print it out so patients can easily understand what medicines they are going to take. ”
Dennis Au, a 24-yearold graduate from the School of Chinese Medicine at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), finds himself sitting in a private clinic, waiting to be “interrogated” by the next patient. He is also growing a bit tired of patients’ doubt and distrust about the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) industry.
That was in mid-2005 and, practicing his profession over the next three years, Au sensed that even patients who received proper treatment tended to give rather biased feedback, basing their judgment on the age and seniority of the doctors.
“Young practitioners always share a common view: Seniority shouldn’t be the only factor to judge a Chinese medicine practitioner,” Au said.
Au wished there was a way to amplify the advantage that graduates have over the doctors operating mom-and-pop clinics.
“We learned about Western medicine at college so that we are able to take a holistic view of diagnosing a disease and let the patient compare the two different treatments,” Au said.
Au was convinced by his fiveyear school fellow Peter Peng to open their own clinic business offering treatments in TCM — a broad range of medicinal practices dating back thousands of years — including various forms of herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, exercise and dietary therapy.
“We hoped to show that there is a qualitative change when new blood like us is brought to the ancient industry,” Au said.
A frequent visitor to Chinese medicine clinics in his childhood, Au is a strong believer in the science and efficacy of TCM.
“When we graduated, there were not as many jobs as we expected, because public hospitals and Chinese clinics could not take in nearly a hundred students from three universities,” Au said.
In a city where a good number of TCM practitioners and store owners have actually inherited the business, the field is seen as economically unattractive by many young people.
The monthly starting salary could be as low as HK$6,000 several years ago.
With soft loans from the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, Au and Peng gathered around HK$200,000 during the 2008 economic downturn and invested in their first clinic, which they named Conduct.
However, the only affordable spot they could find was on the second floor of Nan Fung Industrial Centre in Tsuen Wan, which was not prominent enough to attract passers-by.
Besides, the pair could not afford a janitor or a receptionist, and had to work at other clinics to sustain the operation.
“It was a bold move to open a clinic and introduce new things to the practice,” Au said.
What Au defines as new are threshold practices that helped him go down the right path to attract customers. It took the Conduct founders three months to secure a stable customer base.
Most Chinese routinely use a variety of herbs and potions and other elements of TCM. But when confronted with serious disease, urban Chinese head straight for the hospital, where medicine is generally of the Western variety.
On the other hand, many customers told Au that they chose to visit traditional healers as they felt their treatment was more holistic than Western medicine.
“We noticed that people in Hong Kong are too busy to decoct herbal medicine, so when we came to know there are manufacturers that adopt scientific methods to produce concentrated herbal medicine, we immediately decided to introduce it to Hong Kong customers,” he said.
Au decided to change the stereotype that a doctor’s prescription is a sealed book for average patients.
“Previously no one but TCM doctors who made out the prescription could read the scrawl. But now we feed such information into a computer and print it out, so people can easily understand what medicines they are going to take.”
At Conduct, separate consultation rooms are set up to ensure patient privacy. “Imagine a doctor telling you his diagnosis while another patient is sitting inches behind you — it’s embarrassing but this used to be pretty common practice in the industry earlier,” Au noted.
Sharing health knowledge has become a marketing strategy for the startup. “These days we have blogs, podcasts, and special newspaper columns,” Au said. “We put free information out to the world as a way of starting to get customers to know, like, and trust us.”
Looking back to the days when friends and family were unable to understand his decision, Au gives credit to his faith in his calling — to do what benefits others and realize one’s true value. He says this helped him pulled through despite facing daunting predicaments.
It was not until two years later, when the second clinic was opened, that Au and Peng started to focus on developing a business model that allowed them to scale up.
Au admits that planning for long-term business expansion was a fantasy for him six years ago. But they now have a total of 10 clinics, operated under three models.
“We didn’t expect to open clinics at this speed,” Au said. In 2012 and 2013, the company truly took the fast track by opening five new clinics.
For the third clinic, the two founders of Conduct agreed to introduce another partner who is also a Chinese medicine practitioner.
With the opening of their Central Pharmacy in 2012, Au gave full play to his passion for bringing in another innovative way for patients to benefit from TCM.
The pharmacy accepts online orders after a doctor makes a prescription, and pharmacists at the Tsuen Wan clinic will decoct the herbs and pack it.
Safely packed into a carton, the processed decoction is sealed in plastic packing barely the size of one’s palm, and printed with production date, prescribers’ names and instructions on how to take the medicine.
“Office workers can drop it into boiling water without opening, and drink up the warm liquid directly,” Au said. He added that local couriers can ensure fast delivery within one or two days and the citywide service is an alternative for patients because it saves them the trouble of picking up herbs, boiling them and carrying them home.
What’s more, the pair franchised the business and took on managerial work at four other Conduct clinics where they introduced outside investment.
According to Au, the customer experience will not be different. “We are in charge of hiring doctors, which means a core resource is under our control so that we are able to guarantee every clinic offers quality service to patients.
“Build a likeminded community with young Chinese medicine practitioners around our business, and customers will return, spread the word and support you during tough times.”
As president of the Alumni Association at HKBU, Au often goes back on campus and gives career advice to the post 80s and 90s. Conduct will also enlarge its team of more than 20 TCM practitioners once another new clinic opens this year.
As a Hong Kong-born post 80s person, owning a business empowers Au to do things beyond treat illnesses.
“I dreamed of doing a lot of good deeds at college but when I ended up working for clinics and hospitals, I felt my hands were tied,” Au said.
Inspired by memories of doing volunteer work at college and visiting young night drifters, Au reached out to several social welfare organizations that help drug addicts, offering traditional treatment to assist withdrawal. However, all of them turned him down over safety concerns.
“A lot of drugs are very new so it’s not easy to develop a way to ease the suffering as the addicts try to quit,” Au said.
He persuaded a social worker he used to work with to let him try out his Chinese medicine treatment. This lasted for a year, during which time Au visited the drug users every two weeks.
The treatment proved rather effective and now he is in partnership with at least three organizations, and only charges them operational costs.
Au and two friends also founded Chinese Medicine for All, a non-profit organization striving to teach Chinese medicine practice to people living in poor areas and helping them treat and prevent diseases.
He paid seven visits last year to Chaw Sane, a Burmese village located at the border, and is planning to go to a village in Cambodia on the second day of the Lunar new year.
Chinese Medicine for All partnered with Infanta Integrated Community Development Assistance in the Philippines and Klo Htoo Baw Karen Organization in Cambodia for the projects, where local medical service providers are taught to give TCM treatment to residents by four Hong Kong practitioners sent to the villages.
The volunteers, all HKBU graduates, turned down their job offers to stay in the villages for six months. “We aim to become a Medicins Sans Frontieres in the field of Chinese medicine,” Au signed off. Contact the writer at email@example.com
Many customers of clinic chain Conduct choose traditional healing over Western medicine as they feel traditional Chinese medicine is more holistic.