“Transformational change”: Social enterprise sees 5800% uptick in demand, as COVID-19 drives telehealth boom


Umbo founder Weh Yeoh. Source: supplied.

As the COVID-19 crisis has made many in-person appointments impossible, more and more people have been turning to remote solutions for their regular healthcare needs.

For Umbo, a social enterprise startup working in this space already, that’s meant a boost to business that founder Weh Yeoh didn’t expect — at least, not quite so soon.

Umbo provides remote health services, particularly occupational and speech therapy, to children living in rural and remote parts of Australia.

It set out to tackle the long wait times some of these children face in accessing services, and also to scrap the requirement for them to travel to receive them.

“The evidence shows that the earlier we give these kids an intervention, the more likely they are to succeed,” Yeoh tells SmartCompany.

The startup works directly with clinicians, allowing them to work more flexible hours and from their homes.

But, it also provides training courses to help other practices get their own online offerings up and running.

Since the COVID-pandemic hit, Umbo has seen about a 5800% increase in demand for those training courses, and a 1000% increase in independent clinicians signing up to the platform.

“That has been a really transformational change,” Yeoh says.

Growth in crisis

Yeoh attributes Umbo’s growth partly to the obvious factors. It was already set up for remote operations, he notes. And, COVID-19 social distancing requirements mean many more practices are looking to follow suit.

But, he also puts the startup’s recent success down to the way the business is run.

“Our model of growth is really about compassion and empathy, and really walking alongside the families,” he explains.

Rather than instructing them, or claiming to understand each individual situation, Umbo strives to “listen to them and understand what their journey is like, and then try and model our practice around that”, he says.

COVID-19 means many parents are working from home, while trying to manage homeschooling their kids as well.

“For them to do therapy at home is just another burden,” Yeoh says.

The startup has been providing free resources and worksheets online, in order to help children continue with their therapy, without adding to parents’ workloads.

“What we’ve been trying to do is work out how to do the therapy in a way that it can continue, and the child can continue to see gains, but it’s very low effort on the family’s behalf,” he explains.

“As a social enterprise, it’s a model that can scale and therefore help a lot more people, particularly in rural and remote areas.”

The setup is also designed to support clinicians, allowing those that have their own kids at home to continue working at times that suit them.

“In general, in this space across Australia, there is an undersupply of clinicians and too much demand,” the founder says.

“We have a number [of clinicians] who for various reasons work from home more effectively.”

Ultimately, Umbo serves to give everyone in the process a little bit more control, Yeoh explains.

The business is registered with the NDIS, which itself is based on the tenets of choice and control, he says.

“It’s really important that families feel, firstly, that they’re supported through this process, particularly in times that are insecure like now, because of COVID-19,” he explains.

“The same goes for the clinicians — they feel supported to work when and where they want, and they, therefore, get control,” he adds.

At times of crisis, it’s all the more important for businesses to operate with their core values front of mind, Yeoh suggests. For Umbo, those values are compassion and empathy.

“One of the things we’ve been really careful of is creating a safe space for all of our staff and volunteers and clients, to feel that they are secure,” he says.

“That tends to bring out the best in people. And that’s why we’ve experienced good growth.”

Change is coming

As the COVID-19 pandemic has taken hold in Australia, we’ve seen a shift towards telehealth solutions.

But, like in many other industries, the trend was going this way already, Yeoh says. All COVID-19 has done is accelerate the adoption rate.

People are giving telehealth a try who probably wouldn’t have before.

“What’s going to happen after this all passes, and what life will look like, is anyone’s guess,” the founder says.

“But one of my predictions is that enough people will have seen the benefits of doing therapy online, both in terms of the clinicians and the families … they will wonder why they travelled so far to get services before.”

For many health services, including many therapy services, online and remote solutions are “very adequate and often very effective”, Yeoh says.

“I don’t think we will return to business as usual, where a lot of therapy is done face-to-face,” he predicts.

“I think we’ll see a higher adoption rate of online, and that will be maintained if and when things return to normal.”

That said, there are still barriers to overcome before telehealth becomes the norm.

Firstly, security is paramount, Yeoh says.

“It’s very, very important to make sure you don’t skip over those steps.”

But, there’s also a hurdle in the equity of access. Providing remote healthcare can’t only mean video calls and iPads.

“Rural and remote communities have long been neglected in terms of access to many things, including healthcare,” Yeoh explains.

“As per most things, as we transition to online it’s the communities that are more forgotten — the lower social-economic communities, that may have less access to technology or even less time to adopt it — who are really at risk of falling behind,” he says.

There are ways to support people, regardless of their connectivity and access to technology.

“It’s also about phone calls and text messaging and providing resources digitally.”

Again, Yeoh says, it comes back to approaching telehealth with compassion and empathy.

“If you design your whole practice to come from the perspective of the individual, then you’re making sure it’s accessible to the widest possible range of people,” he says.

Leadership post-pandemic

While Yeoh says he never would have predicted an event like COVID-19 would kickstart the telehealth boom, he does say he feels somewhat “vindicated” by the mass move to remote healthcare.

“We have always known that doing therapy online has so many advantages over face-to-face,” he says.

“It’s nice to get really good feedback from our clients and our partners and the practices we’ve trained,” he adds.

“At a time where everyone is feeling just that little bit more anxiety and stress, they feel like they’ve been heard and listened to.”

He also maintains Umbo’s success in this space is down to the values the social enterprise is built on. Running a business with compassion and empathy, and with a focus on handing over control, has helped navigate the crisis, he says.

“Our growth has come as a result of sticking to those values, and emphasising them in the way we do our work.”

This is indicative of the kind of leadership these situations require, he says.

Yeoh notes that many of the countries that have handled the COVID-19 pandemic well, and have seen positive results, are run by women.

“I think female leaders are able to demonstrate this ability to be empathetic and compassionate, that a lot of male leaders don’t allow themselves to do,” he suggests.

“At times when the whole world that is thrown into disarray, those qualities that those leaders are demonstrating are shown to be more valuable.”

Yeoh hopes that lesson will translate to business leadership as well, both now and once the pandemic has passed.

“My hope is that if and when we return to normal, people will start to recognise how important it is to demonstrate those values,” he explains.

“COVID-19 is an opportunity for us to show really what our character is like; show what we’re really made of in terms of leadership and other values.”

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