Treatment without borders Berlin startup Qunomedical banks on global health tourism

An Austrian surgeon-turned-entrepreneur founded an online medical tourism firm in a bid to provide better and more affordable healthcare to patients worldwide.
Healing the world, one patient at a time.

At first, Sophie Chung’s out-of-office reply this summer read much like your average millennial’s vacation plans. “I’m on an expedition in Alaska hiking the highest peak of North America, a mountain called Denali,” the Austrian startup founder’s autoreply said. But then things got rather unusual. “Just in case I freeze my nose off — don't worry. Qunomedical offers access to the best doctors in the world and surely, I will be fixed.”

This sums up nicely what her company does: Qunomedical connects patients with doctors and clinics in Germany and overseas, helping them to access treatment outside of their home countries.

The medical procedure options range from health check-ups in Vienna to heart surgery in Berlin or fertility treatment in Bangkok — or would you prefer Málaga, Spain? Each month, some 7,000 patients hailing from more than 50 countries use Qunomedical’s services. They receive treatment from doctors or hospitals in two dozen countries.

Ms. Chung’s firm is not the first German upstart specializing in medical tourism. Medigo and Caremondo offer similar services. The latter, however, filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and was sold to Singapore investors.

Navigating the German healthcare system

But Qunomedical is still afloat. Its investors include Project A, a Berlin-based venture capitalist and the California-based venture fund 500 Startups, as well as a family-controlled investment group that doesn’t want to be named. The healthcare startup collected €2.5 million ($2.9 million) in its latest round of financing.

Ms. Chung's mission is to create a fairer healthcare system. “Many people have to wait forever for medical appointments or can’t afford certain procedures at all. That shouldn’t be normal,” the 34-year-old daughter of Cambodian refugees told Handelsblatt.

Coming from a family of doctors, Ms. Chung always knew she would become one. But after a stint as an emergency doctor, Ms. Chung moved on to work as a consultant for the healthcare industry at US consultancy firm McKinsey. It wasn’t long before she realized something had to change. “Healthcare is often completely disconnected from topics such as transparency or service.” And so, she felt compelled to do something about it, something more entrepreneurial.

She joined the New York-based medical appointment startup ZocDoc in 2015 and became a close associate of the founder and CEO Oliver Kharraz. She grew interested in setting up something similar in Germany — but eventually, she warmed to medical tourism.

Qunomedical’s first months were anything but easy. For all its upsides, Germany’s healthcare system isn’t the most innovation-friendly — and Ms. Chung learned the hard way. “We had to jump through so many hoops until health insurers took us seriously,” she recalled.

Anxious German patients

The challenges for startups in this market are huge, said Thomas Solbach, a partner with consultancy PwC. German patients are very wary of going abroad for surgery. “They’re often unsure about the quality and safety of the treatment, but also, for example, about their rights regarding medical treatment abroad.”

Therefore, Qunomedical goes to great lengths to weed out dodgy doctors: algorithms, qualifications and patient evaluations are one part of the assessment. But nothing beats a good, old-fashioned, on-site visit.

Ms. Chung’s fledgling firm stands a good chance to become an established provider of health services, according to Anton Waitz, a senior executive with Project A. He called her “passionate and energetic,” and keen to make the world a better place with entrepreneurial zeal.

It doesn’t hurt Qunomedical's prospects that health tourism is a booming industry. A 2014 survey from PwC estimated the market was worth $48 billion. The US organization Patients Beyond Borders says it is growing by some 15 to 25 percent a year.

And if things should indeed go south for Qunomedical, Ms. Chung has her job as a physician to fall back on. Sometimes she catches herself looking wistfully at the doctors in hospitals, as they retreat into the operating room. “Maybe I'll go back in there someday,” she says.

Johannes Steger covers technology and startups for Handelsblatt. Jean-Michel Hauteville adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]