A significant number of people have been using lockdown to create healthier habits, according to a study done by Medichecks, the UK’s first direct-to-consumer blood-testing company. “We see the healthcare landscape as having permanently shifted to one where people are taking responsibility for their health and being actively encouraged by the government to do so,” says Helen Marsden, Co-founder and Director at Medichecks. 40% of the people interviewed for the study have said that they were eating more healthily than previously, with 75% saying that they now cooked meals from scratch. Also, 44% of people were taking more exercise, despite the gym closures.
In this exclusive interview, Helen talks about the rise in home testing in the UK; an indicator that more and more people are prepared to invest in their health, and offers advice on how leaders can keep the wellbeing of their employees at the core of their policies throughout the second lockdown.
Before building Medichecks, you held senior positions in the City. What motivated you to leave that industry and what were some things you wished you knew before making such a big career change?
Helen Marsden: I worked for over 20 years in the City but in 2007 I left to join my family business to start a consumer health company. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always been interested in health. In my spare time, I would read books about nutrition and longevity, mostly written by American MD’s. These books would always urge you to have your bloodwork done. This was easy enough to do in the US where there is a tradition of direct-to-consumer labs, but impossible to do in the UK where there was nowhere I could go to get a blood test as a consumer, apart from going to my GP or a private doctor. The motivation for me to leave the City was to set up a business that provided a service that allowed me, and people like me, to get the tests they wanted.
The only thing I wish I had known was how much I would enjoy combining my passion for health with my work – I would have made the move much earlier!
What were some of the things that you found unexpected or challenging about the health industry when you first started building Medichecks?
Helen Marsden: Our biggest challenge was trying to get people to spend money on their own health, especially in a country where there is a free at the point of care health service. For many reasons, this is changing, not least due to the budget constraints of the NHS and, more recently, the difficulty of getting a blood test when surgeries and clinics are closed. But there’s also been a shift in people’s mind-sets, especially amongst younger people, who see their health as something within their control, and worth investing in.
What have been some of the challenges you have faced as the co-leader and co-founder of Medichecks during the first lockdown? How did you overcome them?
Helen Marsden: Over the course of 2020, we’ve read a lot about companies “pivoting” to be able to navigate a new and uncertain landscape. We did our fair share of pivoting in the early days of the pandemic! We moved office twice, recognising early on that we wouldn’t need space for 50 people when many of them preferred working from home. Almost half of the tests we sell require a health professional to draw blood but our partner clinics were closed during lockdown, so we pivoted fast to make more tests available through home finger-prick samples. We also worked hard to launch a COVID antibody test in the UK market as quickly as possible, knowing that this was an area where many people would be curious to know whether they had had the virus.
When it comes to our people, some team members need to physically be in the office to pack and ship test kits and our priority has been to keep them safe and COVID free to enable our service to run. With this in mind, we’ve been on the front foot as far as lockdown measures are concerned. For example, we had already moved to a work-from-home model, in advance of government announcements.
Like many organisations, lockdown and working from home has affected our people differently. An initial challenge was to get everyone the equipment and a workstation they needed to be able to comfortably work at home. In the later stages, the challenge has been to keep an eye on the mental health of our team members, especially for those who live alone, or who have had the demands of looking after (or even homeschooling) children while still trying to keep up with their jobs. We are really fortunate as a medical company to have a team of really approachable doctors on board who can help us drive policy, as well as be there with advice if an individual needs some additional help.
How do you keep a healthy work/life balance?
Helen Marsden: My husband is the CEO of Medichecks, so it is safe to say that work-life balance is difficult to achieve in our household! But we try to follow the same advice we give our teams: namely taking breaks, getting outside, switching screens off and making areas in the home Medichecks-free. I can’t stress enough the importance of holidays, even if you can’t go anywhere. Just that breathing space from the day-to-day helps to clear the head and create some perspective.
The Medichecks State of the Nation report is a comprehensive study about the impacts of COVID on people’s livelihoods, health and wellbeing. Were there any figures from the results of the study that surprised you, and why?
Helen Marsden: Contrary to the news reports at the time, we found significant numbers of people were using lockdown to create healthier habits. 40% said that they were eating more healthily than previously with 75% saying that they now cooked meals from scratch. And 44% of people were taking more exercise, despite the gym closures. A big factor in these results could be the extra time people had to take care of themselves. This says to us that people know what to do to be healthy, but in their normal lives don’t allocate enough time to do it. We hope that these habits will now stay with them for life.
What advice do you have for people on how to navigate the second lockdown?
Helen Marsden: As befits a health company, my navigation tips are wellbeing related!
First, make time during daylight hours to get outside. We’ve just created “sunshine breaks” at Medichecks which is a 2-hour window between 12 pm and 2 pm every day when we try not to have meetings so that our teams can get outside in daylight. The benefits to mental and physical health are huge, even if you’re just going for a gentle stroll.
Second, even without COVID-19 it’s important to take vitamin D in the winter months. Having insufficient or deficient vitamin D is really common amongst Brits, especially in winter, and with increasing evidence that it improves the response to COVID, there’s all the more reason to take a daily supplement.
Finally, it’s not too late to get fitter and trim down (if you need to). Age, obesity and conditions that are associated with it like diabetes are risk factors for complications should you get COVID-19. We don’t advocate one diet over another, we think it is important to find a way of eating (and moving more) that works for you.
What changes do you hope to see in the health industry post-COVID-19?
Helen Marsden: We see the healthcare landscape as having permanently shifted to one where people are taking responsibility for their health and being actively encouraged by the government to do so. The terrible toll that people with chronic conditions have paid in this pandemic must surely mean that there is more focus now than ever before on prevention. Almost all the underlying conditions that lead to the worst outcomes for individuals are preventable and, in many cases, reversible. Often, people aren’t even aware that they have a condition. This is where the role of health testing comes in – to provide the insights, advice and motivation to help people take the steps they need to improve.
Other shifts that were taking place slowly, like video consultations and remote blood tests, made years of progress in just a few weeks as GP surgeries around the country had to find new ways of reaching patients. Like working from home, we think that these changes are permanent, and like working from home, we think that a hybrid model will develop, combining efficient and convenient home services when it is safe to do so, with in-person appointments when they are essential, for diagnosis and treatment.