When visiting Nairobi on financial services business for his company in 1993, Kenyan-born adviser Nitin Patel was struck by the area’s lack of good quality medical cover. He found local medical services in decline, spiralling treatment costs and little suitable local insurance cover – all of which gave Patel a chance to expand his UK private medical insurance (PMI) business to his native country.
And the fact that he has grasped the opportunity is demonstrated by the results of this year’s Health Insurance Awards. In a competitive category, an independent panel of judges voted Patel best international PMI intermediary of the year. He says he was surprised to receive the award as it was his first entry, but the judges were unanimous in their praise. One said Patel was “by no means just a PMI broker”, and another that he would feel comfortable taking Patel’s advice.
After graduating in business administration from Florida’s Stetson University in 1987, Patel worked with his father and uncle in their brokerage firm before launching Goldstar Insurance Services in 1991. His vision was of a company that would provide a first-class professional and personal service to its clients.
“I introduced the philosophy of getting to know clients, paying meticulous attention to their requirements and developing long term relationships,” he says.
With his obvious advantages of nationality and local contacts, Patel started off writing financial services and general insurance business in Kenya as well as the UK. And on one of his frequent visits to its capital city Nairobi, he recognised a gap in the local PMI provision and soon started extending his fledgling UK PMI business overseas.
In addition to Kenya, Goldstar now writes PMI business in locations as diverse as Australia, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa and America. Starting off as a sideline, international PMI has blossomed into a major part of the company’s portfolio, often generating new investment and general insurance business.
Although Goldstar administers international PMI schemes from its East Croydon base, it has a satellite sales office in Nairobi run by local Goldstar-employed consultants. Clients can visit this office for expert local advice or just to drop their monthly payments off – a good example of the personal service, often impossible in the international PMI arena, on which Goldstar prides itself.
To keep up with changing local markets overseas, Patel visits East Africa at least five times a year. He believes this first-hand experience is vital, as local medical conditions and PMI provision obviously have an impact on the validity of selling international cover in different regions.
With policies from local companies for example, if you fall ill, that condition is automatically excluded from your plan at renewal stage. Someone with international PMI cover can avoid such difficulties.
Contrary to popular belief, Patel says that many of the hospitals in developing countries are of a reasonably good standard. Nairobi has four facilities, all of which have an acceptable level of basic equipment.
“You wouldn’t necessarily want to have a heart bypass in any of them, but they all have enough equipment to serve the needs of most of the local community,” says Patel.
Apart from high cost of treatment, the major underlying problem of local medical treatment in Africa is the scarcity of consultants. Equipment is worthless without enough people qualified to use it, which is why so many of the area’s wealthier residents have turned to the flexibility of treatment abroad offered by international PMI.
Patel believes such specialist local knowledge is an important part of Goldstar’s overall customer service focus. This has helped the company maintain annual international PMI business growth of around 30 per cent.
Apart from its professional ‘introducers’ in Kenya, accountants and solicitors who set up meetings with people interested in PMI, Goldstar relies on referrals for new business and has never yet had to advertise its services.
“Probably the most important thing we do in building up long relationships with our clients is listen to what they want from us,” says Patel. “If someone from Kenya has to come to the UK for a consultation, what they often want is to be picked up from the airport and their appointment and accommodation booked well in advance.”
As many of its clients are likely to be thousands of miles away, Goldstar also offers to manage the entire claims process on their behalf. Patel says that, based in the UK, his team is in a much better position to check whether claims have been received, paid in the correct currency, and, if rejected, to find out exactly why and possibly appeal against this.
The advent of e-mail has made international client contact far easier – as the postal system in Kenya is unreliable, Goldstar has to use a weekly courier service to its Nairobi office and staff there then ensure clients receive mail by delivering it themselves.
Patel also draws attention to the positive impact of the internet on international PMI, although, like most advisers, he is against online sales because they bypass independent advice. However, as well as instant online quotes and detailed local information, he says the web allows overseas clients to download and fill in online claim forms, which avoids the time-consuming problems of international mail.
With his focus on local markets in Kenya and East Africa in general, Patel believes Bupa International is by far the best of the international PMI players. He feels most providers fail to recognise the nuances of local markets – one insurer expects policyholders in deepest Kenya to call a claims hotline in Sheffield, for example.
Bupa International has joined forces with local players rather than antagonising them by developing separate facilities of its own. The company has formed links with several local hospitals and companies across the world. In South Africa, it has arranged for Old Mutual Healthcare to administer its local claims, and, by doing so, has not only found a useful local partner but also reduced its administration costs.
“Local markets are very different from what UK PMI providers will be used to,” says Patel. “A company needs to establish itself in a market for four or five years before it fully understands local conditions and needs – which Bupa International has been able to do in East Africa.”
For Patel, these local nuances are the most pressing industry issue of the moment, and, once again, he feels Bupa International is the only provider to give it adequate attention. As sales of international PMI will obviously reduce local medical insurance business, many countries have introduced strict regulations to protect regional industry. In France, for example, it is illegal to sell international PMI to a Frenchman. The same applies in India for Indian nationals, although not for people of other nationalities living in the country.
This kind of expert knowledge is obviously vital for insurers and intermediaries alike if they want to make a success of selling international PMI in local markets.
Patel believes most international PMI providers are only concerned with expatriate clients rather than developing more challenging local market business.
He says: “Many insurers offer excellent international PMI cover for UK expatriates going to live abroad but don’t want to know about a Kenyan national doing the same thing or just living in Kenya. This is obvious from the rates they offer for the latter type of cover – sometimes up to three or four times more than Bupa International, which is hardly cheap in the first place.”
While positive about Bupa International’s policies, Patel says he would welcome other providers bringing more competitive rates to this side of international PMI.
“Bupa International’s cover is good, offering all the usual aspects plus emergency evacuation, which is particularly important for people in developing countries,” he says. “But it could improve on its prices – and more companies introducing good economy international products might prompt such a move.”
With so many companies sending employees to work abroad, everyone in the international PMI market sees huge growth potential over the coming years – and Patel is no exception. Apart from the obvious economy product opportunities in his own specialist area, he believes the growing number of multinational companies will also widen the market.
Patel says that, with so many people now working in a global context, the need for global cover has never been greater. Without such international protection, someone who develops a condition while working in one country might face problems getting cover for that illness if they move to work somewhere else. With international cover, not only are people covered wherever they are in the world but most policies guarantee the world’s best treatment, wherever it might be available.
He says the next step for Goldstar is to focus its attention on India. And with the large number of Indian nationals living in the UK, many of whom like to travel home when British weather turns sour, the company seems to have stolen a march on the international PMI market once again.
And so it seems the jet-setting Patel will become even better travelled – to the benefit of his business and his customers worldwide.