Social entrepreneur: Boo Armstrong

Boo Armstrong, MD of complementary medicine specialist GetWellUK, explains how she turned her charity into a financially viable operation.

Boo Armstrong, MD of complementary medicine specialist GetWellUK, explains how she turned her charity into a financially viable operation.

Boo Armstrong, MD of complementary medicine specialist GetWellUK, explains how she turned her charity into a financially viable operation.

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Boo Armstrong is the founder and Managing Director of GetWellUK. Boo founded GetWellUK believing that complimentary medicine can play an important role in health and well-being and to ensure that more people have access to effective healthcare, not just those that can afford to pay for it privately. Boo’s mission is that GetWellUK becomes the best supplier of complimentary healthcare to the NHS.

How did GetWellUK start?
GetWellUK started four years ago, 2004. Really I’d had an idea, I used to run this charity called Women and Health and there was a network there of more than a hundred health professionals who worked in the local community, either for free as volunteers or at low cost to help people access good heathcare. So we had a whole range of counsellors, yoga teachers, doctors, nurses, alternative therapists, loads of them, and while I was there I noticed three things that lead to the formation of GetWellUK. So the first one was that complimentary medicine really works. I see people come in, they were ill and they’d leave much better. So it works. And also these practitioners we were working with, say you’re an osteopath and you’ve trained for five years, you’ve done a full time degree, it’s pretty much the same level as a doctor, your only career path is to work in private practice. There’s no opportunity for you to work with, you know, your average person walking down the street who needs your services. So it’s quite frustrating that the NHS didn’t have a way in for these practitioners. And also then I started my job in the charity was to make it financially viable, so I started selling our services to the local health authority as it was then. And when they were commissioning these things, buying our services, I found out they don’t know how to, and it’s no fault of their own they just haven’t had this education, so I was then able to guide them through, you know, performance management, quality issues, which practitioners are any good, how much should they be paying for it and so on. So from this small charity in Camden it became clear to me that what we needed was a kind of brokerage agency to bring together patients who need access to these services, doctors who want to refer their patients to alternative therapists, the practitioners themselves who want to work within the NHS and then NHS funding.

How is GetWellUK financed?

Money comes in a variety of different ways, so initially we were really fortunate that a number of people supported us, individuals through philanthropic means and typically it was people that had benefited themselves, you know, from an acupuncturist or an osteopath whatever, who then donated money. We borrowed some money from the Government through, they lent some money to third sector organisations who were delivering public sector services, really to help non-profits and social enterprises be able to operate fairly in an open market. So it’s to help us with our capacity building, so we borrowed a bunch of money and obviously whenever we run services then we take a fee, you know, take a management fee. And depending on exactly what we offer to a company we take more or less money, you know, if we’re providing services we’ll charge for that, if we’re just doing some management we charge that fee. So it depends according to what skills they need us to bring to the mix.

How has
GetWellUK evolved since it started?
I think when the organisation began I had the big idea, which is often how these things start. I went around telling everyone my big idea and the general feedback was that you need to run a pilot project, you need to find out if this is actually true or not. So I guess the organisation first got legs with my first NHS project which was in North London. And obviously you learn things as you go along. The first project was really good we had it independently audited by a professor, Professor Robinson from Thames Valley University, and the outcomes were really good. So then from that we won a number of other contracts and delivered more services, but delivering things at a local level it’s going to take a long time to change healthcare, you know, my ambition is to change healthcare fundamentally, so that’s quite slow. So the next big shift in gear, I guess, was when we were commissioned by the Government in Northern Ireland to run a project for them, so it was just a bigger scale than what we had done before and it was really good for me to test out my business model because I’d always said to potential clients that we could run a service anywhere and actually to be doing it in Northern Ireland from our base in London, you know, proved the point and we did a really good job.

Why did you start your business?

My motivations for starting this up was inequality really. I think it’s not fair that some people can access this kind of healthcare and some people can’t. It’s almost an accident that I’m in healthcare. The thing that really gets me out of bed in the morning is justice and injustice. So in the UK at the moment one in five of us use these therapies but ninety per cent of it is private. So we already know that there’s a big gap between rich and poor health and poor health and the people that most need these therapies are often least able to afford them. And given that we’ve got an NHS, you know, I just feel that it’s incumbent upon me to sort it out.

What is it like running a social enterprise?
Obviously it feels really good to be doing something useful and I’m never embarrassed or ashamed of what I do, you know, sometimes you’ll meet people through networking things and, you know, they’re good at what they do but perhaps they…it’s not fundamentally fulfilling as a person. You know, for me this feels really good. It doesn’t feel like I’m wasting my life, it feels like I’m contributing to making things better. The world is clearly in a mess right now and there’s lots of smart people and I think that everyone that can should be using their abilities to help create a world which works better. So I feel good that I’m doing my bit.

Nick Britton

Lexus Ernser

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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