It’s estimated that one in about 30 women in South Africa is diagnosed with breast cancer, the second most common form of the disease in South Africa. If detected early enough, however, the survival rate is more than 95%.
That’s where people like entrepreneur Annemie Apffelstaedt come in. In 2002, she and her husband, breast surgeon Justus Apffelstaedt, opened Prof Justus Apffelstaedt and Associates, a breast health centre that offers women imaging and clinical care under one roof, in a female friendly and caring environment.
It was the first of its kind in the country and on the continent. More than 5 000 patients visit the centre every year. In 2007, Annemie was nominated as a Positive Newsmaker of the Year by the Top Women Awards, which recognise South Africa’s most influential and inspiring women.
Changing healthcare environment
“We felt that breast health care in South Africa could be improved,” she says. “It has been shown that women obtain the best care in dedicated breast health centres where imaging and clinical services are combined and the management of both benign breast conditions and breast cancer are offered.
At the same time, the past decade has seen a shift in female healthcare generally, with women taking a more proactive role in prevention rather than treatment, by going for regular check-ups. These factors have contributed to the success of the business.”
The centre offers mammography and other breast imaging procedures, as well as the services of breast surgeons, oncologists and reconstructive surgeons. That means a patient diagnosed with cancer has immediate access to a team of experts and can consult with all of them at once. It’s a far more informative process and one which improves the outcome by ensuring the patient gets the best treatment.
Apffelstaedt took up the position of practice manager from the start, a role she was more than ready for, thanks to her degrees in business and languages, and her extensive work experience in finance and accounting.
Pre start-up preparation
The Apffelstaedts were so determined to make a success of the venture that they both completed an MBA through Bond University before launching the business. “We decided to prepare by doing an MBA with a focus on entrepreneurship and new ventures. We did it together in 19 months to minimise the pain, and we graduated in 2000.
During this time we developed our business plan. The course was invaluable as we learnt about how to launch a start-up. It gave us the basics of what we needed to know, taught us to evaluate situations without panicking, and also how to deal with change in a world that is constantly shifting.”
That original business plan was then implemented. They sourced the right property in the right location for their service offering, based on extensive research. To finance the centre, they sold their house, withdrew their pension funds and obtained loan funding from the bank for the property and the equipment required. To secure that initial finance, they had to prepare a compelling presentation, another area in which the MBA served them well.
At this early stage, they kept on revisiting the contents of the business plan to ensure that their start-up remained on track. They were also very selective about hiring the right women for the job. Today they have a team of 14.
Setting world-class standards
Apffelstaedt emphasises the importance of standards in this type of business. “We have worked non-stop to ensure a world-class service by focusing on breast health matters and education in mammography interpretation, as well as ongoing training in the management of all breast health matters.
“The results of our work have been published in peer-reviewed national and international journals and are proof of our adherence to international best practice in breast health. An important factor in such a venture is that you have to eat, sleep and drink the work you do. This is not just a job. A passion for excellence and dedication to making a difference are important.”
Building a reputation
When the centre was first launched, advertising in women’s and health magazines was key. “You have to make yourself well known when you start a company and a medical practice is no different from any other type of business. We worked out a dedicated marketing campaign and used the services of a design company.
We also have an excellent media liaison consultant. It’s crucial to work with a person who understands the delicate nature of the field of practice. It’s also important to communicate advances in breast health matters and breast cancer treatment to the public to ensure that they know that treatment at this level is available in South Africa, even though the country is a resource-restricted environment.”
In addition to advertising and marketing, the centre developed relationships with referring doctors. Apffelstaedt soon proved to them that she and her team had set the benchmark for breast health excellence.
The centre has also thrived because it offers a service that takes away medical risk for GPs and gynaecologists. “Because our focus is so specific, we are always up to speed with the latest research in our field. That means general doctors are comfortable referring their patients to us because they know they will receive the best and latest care.”
Looking back on the centre’s achievements, Apffelstaedt says that preparing well to start up was essential, as is ongoing research. “We understand the market in which we operate, we move with the times and embrace changes in healthcare, and we respond to what women want. It’s important to listen to your customers – they provide the best marketing feedback.”
Do the research
In starting up the breast care centre, Annemie Apffelstaedt understood that accurate and thorough information is the foundation of all successful business ventures. “Extensive market research provides a wealth of information about prospective and existing customers, the competition, and the industry in general.
It allows business owners to determine the feasibility of a business before committing substantial resources to the venture.” In setting up a highly specialised business like a breast health centre, it was imperative to conduct research into the characteristics, spending habits, location and needs of the target market – healthy women aged 40-plus who understand the importance of maintaining breast health, are willing to use the service regularly, and are able to pay the cost.
Player: Annemie Apffelstaedt
Company: Prof Justus Apffelstaedt and Associates
Contact: +27 (0)21 930 2662; apffelstaedt.com