Surgeon engineers place in private healthcare market
James Sheehan, founder of The Blackrock Clinic
SOME pensioners may know that hip implants are made of titanium or stainless steel but few would expect to be treated by a doctor of mechanical engineering. That’s just what James Sheehan’s patients get, however.
The founder and co-director of the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin is not just an enterprising engineer. He is also a qualified orthopaedic surgeon.
In 1969, when Sheehan was working as a young orthopaedic registrar in Britain, he became interested in how artificial joints were developed. So he took a year off work, enrolled at the University of Surrey and started studying for a degree in mechanical engineering.
A year later Sheehan went back into medicine while continuing to study for his engineering qualification part-time. Six years later, while still a full-time orthopaedic surgeon, he was awarded a PhD in mechanical engineering.
Sheehan was born in Kerry in 1939. His family later moved to the capital where his father worked in the ballast office at Dublin Port and Docks.
Four of the five children in the family became doctors. The fifth is a pharmacist. Sheehan always wanted to be a surgeon. “I had no interest in anything else.”
In 1970, after four years training in British hospitals, Sheehan came back to Ireland as an orthopaedic consultant while continuing his engineering studies long distance.
In Cappagh hospital, he set up a joint replacement unit which thrived, giving as many as eight patients a week hip and knee replacements.
In the 1980s, cutbacks bit, and the number of treatments at the unit was curtailed to two a fortnight. Frustrated, Sheehan looked for other opportunities. About 30% of the population in the Irish republic had private medical insurance, Sheehan reasoned, but the state had no stand-alone facility providing a full range of private medical care. There was an obvious gap in the market.
“Privately insured people with serious illness had to revert to the public system because they couldn’t be treated. I thought, surely we could look after even some of that 30%,” he says.
Sheehan, his brother Joseph, an orthopaedic surgeon based in Chicago, and a colleague George Duffy, set up Blackrock Clinic Limited, a private limited company.
With the backing of a bank loan and private investment they bought a site in Blackrock to build a 37-suite consulting clinic. To raise the money for the clinic, they sold the suites to 50 doctors.
In 1984, it opened its doors to the public, and Bupa Hospitals Limited became investors. It took a 51% stake in the second part of the development, a private hospital, which opened in 1986. The Blackrock Clinic, Ireland’s first dedicated high-tech private hospital, employs 440 staff at its premises in Dublin.
It treats 15,000 patients a year. Next June, a second €100m clinic will open in Galway, capable of treating at least another 15,000 people. Full planning permission has been granted for a third facility in west Dublin.
Sheehan believes strongly in private healthcare and that a significant proportion of Irish workers want to pay for it.
Setting up more independent hospitals, as has been done in Britain, can mean fewer private cases being handled in public facilities.
He says that being an entrepreneur means having a clear plan and not entertaining doubt.
“Be deaf to criticism,” Sheehan advises. “Be committed to what you feel is right in life.”