An Interview with Ruben Toral, QUO’s New Director of Healthcare + Wellness

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Ruben Toral is a healthcare industry veteran with decades of experience in hospital marketing and medical tourism. He has built healthcare businesses, brands and physician networks in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, and his work has been featured in whitepapers, articles and books, including Fast Company and Aerotropolis: How We Will Live Next.

Tell us about your experiences working in healthcare and wellness. How did you get your start?

My career in healthcare spans over 25 years and started innocently enough while working on a wellness project for Noble Holdings, a Thailand-based property developer. That project morphed into a career in medical services that included co-founding a medical services company specialising in lithotripsy (shock wave therapy for kidney stones) and a two year stint in Mexico, where I set up the company’s Latin American operations.

While in Mexico, I was contacted by the CEO of Bumrungrad Hospital and offered the opportunity to lead the hospital’s international business development, which I did for 7 years. I then founded Medeguide, a portal to connect patients and doctors online. After Medeguide, I co-founded Intermedika Consulting, a healthcare consulting firm specialising in business strategy.  Our clients were primarily hospitals, investment companies and government health promotion agencies.

What is your role with QUO and why did you make the move to work with a branding company?

QUO is a leading branding agency specialising in hospitality, tourism, and advocacy. While the agency has worked with a handful of clients in healthcare and wellness, it has ambitions to expand its reach in the healthcare space. Given my experience in healthcare, strategy, and marketing, it was a natural fit. I have a longstanding personal and professional relationship with QUO CEO and Founder, David Keen, so the transition was easy.

Most people associate you with medical tourism and your work at Bumrungrad International.  Tell us more about your experience there.

Bumrungrad was one of those special career moments when you find yourself at the right place at the right time working with exceptionally talented people. I joined the hospital in 2001, and was in charge of developing relationships with referral doctors and clinics, creating a new international patient centre, building out the hospital’s overseas representative offices network in Asia and Middle East, and developing partnerships to support our medical tourism efforts. I also managed the brand, the public relations and media.

At that time, the term ‘medical tourism’ was unknown and Singapore was the go-to centre in Asia for patients seeking international standard medical care. By 2007, when I left the hospital, everything had changed. Medical tourism emerged as one of the hottest trends in healthcare and Bumrungrad was its epicentre. International patient revenue surpassed domestic patient revenue, and Bumrungrad was featured by virtually every major news outlet in the world. It was a very exciting time.

That’s a significant business transformation in a very short period of time. Was medical tourism the trigger?

I’ve often said that Bumrungrad won the medical tourism race due to ‘fast mover advantage’. By that I mean management was quick to understand and react to opportunities and challenges, including medical tourism. Bumrungrad was the first hospital in Asia to receive JCIA accreditation; it was the first to establish referral contracts in the Middle East; and we led the whole cosmetic surgery boom that started in the early 2000s.

We focused brand messaging around the hospital’s key differentiators e.g. hotel-like facilities and service, US trained doctors, international accreditation, and prices that were 30%-50% less than Singapore. As I used to say at the time, Bumrungrad offered a Mercedes product at a Toyota price. It was a simple message that everyone understood.

As part of Bumrungrad’s transformation, you also led the hospital’s rebranding in 2005. Is that correct?

Yes. Our international patient business was outpacing our domestic business 2 to 1, and it became clear that the brand originally created in 1980 no longer fit the business 25 years later. The business had evolved and the brand needed to evolve too. That’s where my association with QUO started. I selected QUO to help with the hospital rebrand. Together, we changed the name, tagline, colours, visuals, tone of voice, and applied it to signage, marketing collateral and all corporate identity materials. It was a significant undertaking, but well worth it. The rebrand repositioned Bumrungrad Hospital,  a Thai hospital treating international patients to Bumrungrad International, an international hospital in Thailand providing world-class medical care on par with top medical centres in Europe and the US.  It did what branding is supposed to do—define and differentiate.

How important is branding for hospitals and healthcare in general?  Bumrungrad made the change but not many others have followed.

Strong brands establish trust, and no industry is more trust-driven than healthcare. At the consumer level, strong brands drive consumer awareness, choice, loyalty and advocacy. At the business level, strong brands influence pricing power, profitability and share value.

As a rule, hospitals lag other industries, like hospitality, when it comes to branding. My experience is hospital owners and CEOs don’t see branding as a source of value creation so they don’t fix what they perceive isn’t broken. But brands evolve with the business, and branding supports reputation. Consumers, by and large, select healthcare providers based on reputation. Medical tourists even more so. If a hospital is not investing and cultivating its brand, it is effectively leaking value.

Wellness seems to be the big trend now.  Where do you see this going?

Wellness is a trend with lots of momentum. Over the past 10 years, wellness has been trending, but COVID supercharged it. That awakening, if you will, has driven industries and businesses to add wellness as a ‘new’ ingredient to make their products ‘healthier’.

My issue is that the term ‘wellness’ is very broad. It is everything and nothing. So, the challenge is taking an amorphous term and shaping it into a product or service that has value for the customer. Many companies simply re-label old products and services as ‘wellness’, and that’s not sustainable.

The combination of wellness and hospitality is an exciting hybrid space that is ripe for development, but it requires matching capabilities and needs with cost and risk. I have worked with hospitality companies, hospitals, wellness clinics and wellness resorts so I have a good sense of the issues, opportunities and challenges in the wellness space.

Finally, where are the new opportunities in the healthcare and wellness space?

That’s a huge question, but I see healthcare as one of the most exciting industries entering one of the most disruptive periods. In short, we are moving from the old analogue model of care that is doctor centric, focused on sick care, delivered episodically and in silos, and paid for by a third party, insurer or government. The new model is digitally enabled, continuous, connected, personalised and paid for by individuals through savings and incentives. The healthcare system we have today is built around sick care rather than well care.


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