When Business and Healthcare Meet: A Look at an Interdisciplinary Business Run By Students from Hong Kong Polytechnic University

13923535_706655699475691_725367246747842977_oThe Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) Faculty of Business has a mission of IDEAS (Innovation Driven Education and Scholarship).  Underpinning this mission is the responsibility to develop future leaders who can contribute to the society meaningfully and innovatively.  Over the years, their Faculty has gradually stepped up its emphasis on ethics, responsibility, and sustainability in education, research, and service to the community.  A conversation between colleagues in business and the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University resulted in the development of an interdisciplinary venture; the student-run Wellness Clinic.

I spoke with Pamsy Hui from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University about this innovative initiative.

What is the Wellness Clinic?

The Hong Kong PolyU Student-run Wellness Clinic is the first student-run physiotherapy clinic in Hong Kong.  Jointly set up by the Faculty of Business and the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), it promotes and provides preventive care programmes, such as fall prevention programme and lower back pain prevention programme to the community.  These programmes are designed, promoted, administered, and implemented by students, under the supervision of a registered physiotherapist.

How did it come about?

It started out as a university-funded interdisciplinary initiative to encourage entrepreneurship among students in the two PolyU units in 2013.  It was identified early on that preventive health services would be a focus.  The first phase of the initiative was an open competition, in which student teams put forth different business models based on their findings on the preventive healthcare needs in the community.  The winning team was then invited to join the core management team of the clinic, implementing its business model.  The first management team has since passed the responsibility to their successors.  So we have gone through a period of succession planning and transition in the clinic’s short life as well!

What are the key features and how does it work?

The interdisciplinary nature of the clinic is one of its biggest features.  While the physiotherapy students design the actual programmes to introduce to the community, the business students take care of the service operation, marketing and general strategic plan for the clinic.  In order to provide programmes that are high quality and suitable for potential clients, the two groups of students need to maintain constant communication.  In other words, business students would need to communicate to physiotherapy students the market needs, and physiotherapy students would need to communicate to business students whether the needs can be served.  Without such two-way communication, resources would be wasted on programmes irrelevant to the community served.

The second biggest feature is the extent through which students can practice what they learn in the classrooms.  In fact, through the application of their specialised skills, be it physiotherapy or business, students get to see for themselves how their knowledge can be a force for good.

The clinic is intended to be a self-sustaining social enterprise in the long-run.  Therefore, a Care Fund was established.  Normally, clients pay a fee for the service provided.  Part of this income, along with donations, is fed into the Care Fund to subsidise clients who cannot afford the normal price.  Part of the challenge for the students, then, is to figure out how to balance different types of programmes and clients to sustain the clinic.

How does this connect to the SDGs?

The Wellness Clinic deals directly with Goal #3: Good Health and Well-being.  Specifically, through the operation of the Wellness Clinic, students strive to provide services that are available to all, including elderly who cannot otherwise afford to pay for the programmes.  Regardless of the clients and programmes, the aim for the Wellness Clinic is to promote preventive healthcare.  Rising healthcare costs have been a concern the world over, especially in ageing societies.  If people can be educated about the prevention of health issues, the burden on the healthcare system can be lightened.  In a small way, the Wellness Clinic also aims to prevent extreme poverty brought forth by potentially crippling medical expenses among some of the most vulnerable inhabitants in the city (i.e., the elderly).

Challenges?

With its interdisciplinary nature, communication across disciplines would be a challenge.  Business students and rehabilitation science students have different mindsets and different focus areas in the project.  Fortunately, so far, all the students involved have gone into this with a learning mindset.  That helps a lot.  Another major challenge is the sustainability of the project.  Students constantly face the challenge of making the clinic financially viable while providing affordable care for those who need it.  That means they have to keep thinking about new business plans and reaching out to new donors.  Sustainability can also be viewed in terms of the human resources.  Most students complete their programmes in four years.  If they sign onto the project in their second year, realistically they have at most two years on the project before they are busy with the final year workload.  That means new members need to be recruited onto the team every year.  New members bring new ideas and energy, but also pose challenges to continuity.  Students really do learn the challenges of succession planning in this project!

Successes?

As the Wellness Clinic has a constant stream of courses for different target clients, it benefits a good number of people.  For example, among the clients in the fall prevention classes, 68% of them demonstrated significant improvement in the knowledge of fall prevention, 57% of them are more confident about dealing with falls, and 38% of them showed actual physical improvement.  These are encouraging results.  Meanwhile, both sets of students get to practice what they learn in a meaningful way.  They also get to learn about how to work across disciplines, sharpen their communication skills, and strengthen their sense of responsibility.  In addition, through the experience, they get to experience organisational issues, such as succession planning and sustainability.  These are good learning opportunities for the students.  From an education point of view, this serves as a prototype that we can replicate in the future with other disciplines.

What advice do you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar in place?

Interdisciplinary projects like this are very challenging to sustain.  First, there has to be strong commitment from different parties.  Even though this is a student-run project, supervision by the faculties would still be necessary.  Faculty support – be it financial or merely moral support – would also help motivate students.  Second, in a university setting, the need for a good succession plan is even more pressing than in normal organisations.  The turnover is constant and frequent.  Faculty facilitation in this aspect may be necessary.  Third, sustainability will be a challenge.  Before embarking on such projects, it is good to assess the long-term financial viability of the projects, as well as the likelihood that people will be excited about it in the long-run.  Finally, it always helps if the project is consistent with the general philosophy and values of the school.  Such projects take up a lot of energy, and if they are not in line with other things the school is doing, they will be very difficult to maintain.

What’s next for the initiative?

For the Wellness Clinic itself, sustainability is the number one priority.  The goal is not about growth, but about maintaining good quality and affordable preventive physiotherapy programmes for the community.  In order to serve more people in need of the services (but cannot afford them), students will need to find innovative ways to keep the Care Fund healthy.

This project also shows the value of interdisciplinary student projects.  So another next step is to locate new opportunities for business students to work with students from other disciplines (e.g., construction engineering, nursing, design, etc.) on social enterprise projects.

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