For Metropolis, the next level of growth is not merely chasing business but making an impact in the community with the science that it deals with. With about 5,000 tests in its portfolio, the Mumbai-based laboratory chain wanted to reach out to the medical and healthcare fraternity, not only in India but internationally, offering them its new and unique tests to benefit a much larger patient population. Along with this, the country’s second-largest diagnostics player by sales is also looking forward to engaging with the brightest and the most promising minds in the profession to develop a greater endorsement base for its future technologies and services. So, the focus is on scientific expertise again. Sushil Shah, Founder & Chairman of Metropolis Healthcare and the company’s technology mastermind, says he is back in action to prepare the organisation to face emerging technology challenges.
You had taken a backseat in the interim, with the company on a fast track under a next-generation leadership. Any particular reason for taking an active role again?
Ours is ultimately a scientific organisation. So, scientific and technical strategies are always core to running the organisation. It always requires some or other new technical expertise even in the most routine of operations. As a pathologist, I take care of the technical side and Ameera (daughter and Managing Director) looks after the business. That’s how we have divided our roles. I had taken a backseat in between, though I have been on and off at the lab mostly, as there are core teams in place now for every speciality unit. But, again, I’m getting more involved now as we need to set a few things right on the technical side as we gear up for the next level of growth. On the business side I am more than happy as the company has grown much beyond my expectation.
What is there as priority agenda for the next growth plan?
Establishing a bigger international footprint is one of the serious plans for the company now and the focus is on Africa to begin with. This is a strategic market for us, because there is huge demand for testing labs and, at the same time, very less competition. Thus, [there is] much better scope for growth there. We are already there in African markets such as Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius etc., but [we are] looking for greater expansion. Earlier, we used to consider such expansion only when an opportunity emerges. Now, with Ameera’s broader international growth vision, we want to create new opportunities rather than chasing the existing ones or waiting for one. As a part of this, we are looking at acquiring markets through organic as well as inorganic routes. With the IPO and the listing, we are now prepared for those big steps.
Another area that we are now seriously considering is clinical trial service, an area that had been expected to grow big in India, but ran into trouble due to several factors including regulatory issues. We expect that this area is going to come back strongly as the scenario is changing and Metropolis wants to focus on this re-emerging opportunity in a big way. One key reason for the comeback of clinical trial opportunities is that a changed outlook for pharmaceutical companies in India as well as other non-traditional geographies like China and Israel on new drug development. While the US was the only dominant player conducting clinical trials in India earlier, companies from other foreign countries, including China and Israel, are expected to make a strong entry into pharmaceutical development for the global market, because of which India is also going to benefit significantly.
Similarly, the health check-up market is growing fast in India; so, preventive health is the other high-potential segment with several government and corporate schemes already running and in the making. We have a full-fledged facility now gearing up for that big opportunity, with many special approaches and unique packages.
You mentioned earlier that you want to position Metropolis as a scientific organisation. As we all know, medical science is one area that witnesses the most rapid and revolutionary changes today. In this context, what are the new competencies you offer or plan to create to fulfill the needs of new generation clinicians?
As you know, as far as scientific innovations are concerned, we had many firsts in the country to our credit from the beginning in 1980, when laboratory medicine was in its infancy in India. For instance, we were the first reference lab and the first to come out with IVF tests in the private sector. Metropolis was also the first lab in India to start the HIV/AIDS test, at a time when no one had heard of the disease. It was also the first molecular biology lab in the country. So, creating new competencies has been quite regular in Metropolis. As of December 2018, we had approximately 3,487 clinical laboratory tests and 530 profiles in our portfolio, which gets enhanced by at least 35 to 50 new tests every year.
As I mentioned earlier, Metropolis is an organisation that is backed by strong science. As a lab that has one of the largest test menus, including traditional and new generation, we do perform many new and unique tests. These tests and capabilities were communicated to only a few individual doctors so far. But we have a strong feeling that such scientific information should go to a larger audience in the medical fraternity, thereby benefiting many more patients. Therefore, we have decided to participate in large national and international conferences to present our findings and case studies. We want to project them in the perspective of doctors too in such platforms. In other words, even with such a large test menu, some tests — like those for rare disorders or findings — are often done in very few numbers at present as they are not widely communicated.
How are you going to support the clinician community excel in their profession?
The recently started medical engagement programme called ‘Medengage’ is something unique in today’s industry. This is a medical talent outreach programme that has been conceived by Metropolis to encourage medical talent in the country. We have been in the field of laboratory medicine for over 37 years and wanted to contribute to the development of medicine in general with 3-4 different engagements. One of these is to empower medical students with resources and help them in medical research. Under this, we want to help brilliant medical students who have the capability to study but can’t afford it. We have instituted some 40 scholarships for students from across the country and even abroad. Though the objective well intentioned, there is, of course, a business linkage as well. These doctors will remember the brand forever.
The other thing is to recognise the young talents in medicine. With this, the young doctors who do something extraordinary or unusual are recognised with a prize. The objective is to encourage them at a young age, to motivate and to make them achieve more in their careers. Normally, what happens is that such recognition in the medical profession comes at the last stage of their career, as excelling in this profession is a long process and many of them get busy getting settled in the profession in the initial years. Often, they become known in the field and to the outside world in their middle age or even later. But we want to recognize them at a young age and it could be for an excellent thesis that he or she has prepared or even an innovative experiment that gives unique insights in the field of medicine etc.. The awards that we wanted institute for young doctors comes with a substantial amount of money as well, which will help them pursue such projects further.
For the testing industry, the company plans to institute a fellowship programme for pathologists who want to do research. We will provide them with financial support for research in lab medicine, not only in terms of financial resources but also with lab facilities. There are plans afoot in the field of education in lab medicine. We realise that there isn’t any formal training programme that currently exists for jobs in diagnostics labs. More importantly, the DMLT course that is offered in the country has been proved to be inadequate to prepare students to work in a laboratory. So, most of those who pass from these courses need to undergo practical training of at least six months.
This is a big challenge. So, we are planning to tie up with some of the DMLT institutions to upgrade the course with our practical training modules and also start many new courses that are required in laboratory practice. With this, students are also allowed to do an internship in our labs after the course. We will also train these students in specialized areas and technologies to make them fit for current-day lab operations. Under this plan, we will also start a lab management course, which doesn’t exist today. In addition, we wanted to create a registry of qualified medical technologists who have competed their courses in these institutions. This will help to resolve existing challenges such as difficulties in finding the right candidates for the labs as well as finding the right opportunities for qualified people.