Private healthcare plan for lower earners

Dr Penny Tlhabi.  pic MARIANNE SCHWANKHART 21.01.09
Dr Penny Tlhabi. pic MARIANNE SCHWANKHART 21.01.09

Maryanne Maina

Maryanne Maina

South Africa has a world-class private healthcare sector but because of high levels of unemployment and minimal disposable income, extending access to the lower markets in the country is a daunting task.

This is the view of the woman charged with ensuring that Discovery's products aimed at the lower end of the market are highly competitive. Penny Tlhabi is the general manager for new markets at Discovery.

Her role is to provide the strategic direction for Key Care, Discovery's product aimed at first-time entrants into the market for private healthcare cover. It covers more than 180000 people.

Tlhabi said: "It's hard for lower income earners to justify spending on medical aid when food, clothing and shelter are a more immediate priority.

"For many, the only way to afford private healthcare is through employer subsidisation. We have an overloaded public healthcare system that takes strain with as much as 85percent of South Africans depending on it. We have to find ways to make private healthcare accessible to lower income groups," she said.

Tlhabi has been with Discovery since 2000. She also serves on the executive committees of Discovery Holdings and Discovery Health and was previously the chief executive of the Board of Healthcare Funders (BHF). She is a non-executive director for the BHF and Witkoppen Health Clinic.

A crucial part of her job is managing relationships between the company and stakeholders.

"I drive the strategic part of the Key Care product. I determine how well the product works in the market against our competitors.

"I ensure that the business unit is profitable, is growing, and has sufficient resources to sustain it," she said.

Tlhabi qualified as a medical doctor at the Medical University of Southern Africa. From the consulting room Tlhabi leapt to the boardroom.

She held chief executive positions at both Transmed Administrators and the BHF. While at Transmed, she developed an interest in lower income medical benefits.

"I have 20 people reporting to me and we work together to achieve our vision. But managing people is never easy.

"Staff must be motivated and their leader should show them how their work contributes to the bottom line of the company."

Tlhabi constantly provides her team with various challenges and a motivational environment for their career growth.

"In my current position soft skills are crucial as you need to sell your vision to your team, boss or other stakeholders. So, you constantly need to hone these skills.

"You need soft skills because you will be required to sell your proposal after knowing and understanding what motivates your targeted audience. Technical skills are also essential."

"I joined Discovery in 2000 as I needed to learn the low-income market. I moved to the Board of Healthcare Funders because my interest was on medical aid schemes in Southern Africa," Tlhabi said.

"The exposure I got from my past jobs gave me an in-depth understanding of healthcare policies. After working at the BHF, I moved back to Discovery."

She said her current challenge is capturing more market share for her company, increasing profitability and sustaining her current clients, and increasing her client portfolio.