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. ”

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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 selena@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

PHO­TOS BY ED­MOND TANG / CHINA DAILY

Many cus­tomers of clinic chain Con­duct choose tra­di­tional heal­ing over West­ern medicine as they feel tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine is more holis­tic.

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