NZ Herald: Cecilia Robinson’s online healthcare startup, Tend, buys two real-world medical centres

Article by Chris Keall originally published on NZ Herald, 13/12/21

Virtual primary healthcare startup Tend Health has bought two major medical centres – Symonds Street Medical Centre and Pakuranga Medical Centre – and says two more acquisitions are on the way. The deals make the company, which opened for business in November last year, one of Auckland’s largest primary healthcare providers.

While Tend made a splash as a service for a virtual consultation with a GP, it also offered real-life consultations from the get-go by founding its own bricks-and-mortar medical centre in Kingsland and hiring three doctors for in-person consultations at the facility. Co-founder Cecilia Robinson told the Herald hiring its own GPs and founding its own medical centre, rather than partnering with an existing provider, was a point of difference for Tend.

Earlier this year, Tend bought the Symonds St facility, which it has recently finished refurbishing for a reopening this month. And on Friday it closed the deal to buy the Pakuranga centre. The deals mean Tend now has some 100 staff on its books, Robinson says – with around 50 of them clinicians.

Tend now has “tens of thousands” of patients enrolled, Robinson says. Since November 2020, Tend has had more than 80,000 patient interactions, with two-thirds of patient concerns treated via on line app consultations with over 95 per cent patient satisfaction, Robinson says.

Typical conditions treated include mental health, women’s health, sexual health, paediatrics and repeat prescriptions. One of Tend’s selling points is its extended hours. It offers consultations from 7am to 9pm on weekdays and 8.30am to 4.30pm on weekends. If you enrol with Tend as your GP, visits cost $49 for adults with under-14s free; casual visits are $59 for adults.

Around $20 million has gone into the startup so far from shareholders who include herself and her husband James, Theresa Gattung, and outgoing Morrison & Co chief executive Marko Bogoievski. The crew will soon be getting their chequebooks out again. Robinson says two more major acquisitions are likely to be announced in coming months. The Robinsons are best known for being part of the team that set up My Food Bag (where Gattung was also a director).

As a Herald contributor, Cecilia Robinson has been critical of the state of the public healthcare system, in part because of an outdated and poorly co-ordinated approach to technology (in research for one column, she counted 120 different systems; the Government is in the process of creating a centralised IT approach as it abolishes the DHBs).

But it was events closer to home that were behind the creation of Tend.

“For me, it’s a really personal journey. Me and [husband] James luckily now have three beautiful children, but we had a really difficult journey having children. We had a stillbirth and we lost our second daughter at 17 weeks when I was pregnant with her so we had a really difficult journey holding pregnancies and making sure that we could go through to a safe birth,” she says.

“So after that happened I scoured the internet trying to find a solution that was appropriate and a specific doctor to be able to help us. I ended up on a Skype call with some specialists from Australia and they helped resolve the issue and 11 months later Layla was born. That was my first ever virtual consultation, and after that consultation, James and I just looked at each other and thou􀀁ht ‘This is what healthcare should be like’, you should be able to talk to a specialist and access that easily, and that’s where the journey started.”

The couple teamed with Josh Robb – formerly Pushpay’s head of product and engineering – and the Harvard-educated Dr Mataroria Lyndon, a senior lecturer at Auckland University’s medical school and equity lead for a primary health organisation in Northland. Robb looks after the technology, while Lyndon serves as clinical director (both are also minor shareholders).

Robinson says the acquisitions announced this week, and the two more on the way, are just the beginning. Tend plans to be a nationwide primary healthcare provider.

Meantime, there’s plenty of scope for growth on its doorstep.

“The population of central Auckland is growing, and it is a diverse population that is not currently well served with nearly 50,000 people not enrolled with any general practitioner in the Auckland District Health Board region. The acquisition of the Symonds St Clinic will allow Tend to offer those living in central Auckland easier access to innovative primary healthcare on their terms.”

She says the Pakuranga Medical Centre is a modern, full-service clinic serving a large area of east Auckland. Tend will integrate the centre in 2022 with the Tend platform as its east Auckland medical hub.

Tend was of course founded against the backdrop of the pandemic, but “while Covid-19 has disrupted many businesses, for us it has crystallised our purpose and sharpened our focus,” Robinson says.

“We didn’t start Tend as a response to Covid. We were working on it for almost a year beforehand, but Covid has emphasised the importance of online medical care.”

She says Tend will continue to see “a significant proportion” of its patients online, which she says is not only efficient – for both provider and patient – but also helps get around the talent squeeze, with some GPs coming out of early retirement because of the convenience of being able to work virtual shifts.

But she also emphasises that Tend wants to be a full-service primary healthcare provider nationwide, and that means more bricks and mortar for more in-person consultations too.