NUS Nursing Alumnus Relishes Challenges of Entrepreneurship

30 September 2017

Photo credit: Straits Times

Her nursing journey led her to entrepreneurship, but Kuah Ling Ling remains a practitioner at heart. The ex-acute care nurse now has a newfound passion – community nursing.

As co-founder of tech start-up jaga-me, which provides on-demand home-care services, Ling Ling lives and breathes community nursing and the business she set up to “uberise” it.

But before her accidental foray into community nursing, the self-confessed adrenaline junkie never considered it as a career track. She even rejected an offer to work in a community care setting during her term as an acute care nurse at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, her first job after graduating in 2010 from the NUS Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies as its second batch of pioneer degree nurses.

It was a stint as a freelance community nurse after she left the hospital, and as a full-time nursing staff at the Home Nursing Foundation thereafter, that opened her eyes to both the satisfaction – and the gaps – that lie in community nursing.

“Community nursing will make nurses – especially those who come from an acute care background – more human,” she said. “Often, in the hospitals, we are all guilty of being very task-oriented, driven by completing our care duties at specified times. Community nursing is slower, but the satisfaction percolates through interacting with your patients and their family members. We listen, we empathise, and through understanding their needs we offer suggestions to better care for the patients and to relieve caregiver stress.”

The joys of community nursing

Her community nursing experience also gave her a eureka moment, helping her understand why so many patients were being re-admitted after their discharge – a blind spot that eluded her understanding when she was an acute care nurse.

“I saw huge gaps in the community care sector,” she said. “The rich could afford very good care provided by home-care nurses 24 by 7, but not the less well-off due to the shortage of community nurses. There were also many care issues that were not resolved post-discharge, spilling over to community nursing – and it’s only when you are on the ground that you are able to see them.” These experiences thus serendipitously sowed the seeds to her eventual plunge into entrepreneurship.

“I knew there were nurses around me who could rise up to the occasion, and wondered if there was a way to also apply the IT innovations that were disrupting the media and transportation sectors to healthcare, so as to harness this untapped resource,” she said.

The tipping point

While the initial seeds for jaga-me were planted during those years, it wasn’t until a friend urged her to participate in a hackathon – the MIT Hacking Medicine@SG 2015, which saw 26 teams tackle the theme of “Ageing-in-Place” – that she met her co-founder Julian Koo and jaga-me came about.

“In the hackathon, we had to identify the problems in healthcare, and work on those we had solutions for. Julian and I were both interested in disrupting home care. Our vision was to offer affordable and accessible home-care services to enable patients to get the necessary care,” said Ling Ling. They eventually won the hackathon, but Ling Ling did not entertain further thoughts of turning her ideas into reality as she was still employed with the Home Nursing Foundation and wanted to carve her niche as a community nurse there for a few more years.

Ling Ling and her co-founder Julian Koo (second row, third from left) had a common big idea – to disrupt homecare.

But things got serious when the team again won another accelerator programme pitch – the NTUC Future Starter competition – and received a S$100,000 grant. “It was the tipping point for me as I had to make the really momentous decision of quitting my job to run jaga-me full-time. I thought this was a really rare opportunity for me. I had been sharing my ideas for so long and nothing really propelled them forward till I obtained this funding.”

And so, jaga-me went into full swing.

The privileges of entrepreneurship

Today, Ling Ling wears the hats of entrepreneur and practitioner (she supervises nurses and also personally handles some cases) at jaga-me, while Julian takes charge of business development.

Entrepreneurship has not come easy to the former nurse. “As a nurse, I didn’t have to network with potential collaborators or communicate – especially to large audiences to convince them to invest in our ideas and innovations – as much as I do now.”

Interestingly, her research background, built up during her NUS Nursing days, prepared her a little for the demands of running a start-up. “Running a startup is similar to running a research project: There is a hypothesis to be tested, variables are built to test it, and finally you evaluate your results,” she explained.

But what is a sea change from her previous nursing jobs is she is no longer just responsible for caring for patients but for business sustainability. Talking to clients to find out how jaga-me can better serve them, speaking to nurses to ensure they are well-equipped for their assignments, meeting staff to discuss strategic directions, selling her ideas to investors and then making sense of the financial jargon on funding agreements – these are all in a day’s work for Ling Ling.

“I’m responsible for so much more now – and while exciting ideas that we could roll out keep me awake at night, I enjoy every aspect of entrepreneurship as it’s my own company and I get to implement all our ideas. I am also motivated to succeed as there are patients who depend on jaga-me’s services and I don’t want to let them down,” she said, “And I am learning a lot from it.”

Student days are the best ones to pick up entrepreneurship skills. If I could turn back time, I wouldn’t have spent as much time in the library but ventured to the other faculties to pick up non-nursing skills. Students who want to be entrepreneurs must ask themselves if they can take risks and stomach failures as these are the traits of entrepreneurship.

Kuah Ling Ling

Fine-tuning processes

The last two years have been a roller coaster of a ride, but today, the business is doing well and gaining traction with over 250 registered nurses and trained care aides on the jaga-me platform and more nurses coming on board.

Ling Ling and her team are presently focused on upping the competency of jaga-me nurses by assessing their training needs and delivering courses and workshops to build up their skills and knowledge.

“The demand for palliative care services has spiked as hospices refer patients who need palliative care at home to us. While our nurses may have taken care of palliative care patients in the ward setting, they often worked under a palliative specialist. In the home setting, we have to ensure they are equipped with the hard skills to administer prescribed treatment plans, and the soft skills to provide comfort and assurance to palliative patients and their families,” she explained.

In July, jaga-me collaborated with HCA Hospice to organise a palliative care workshop for its nurses to give them training in end-of- life care.

Nurses attend jaga-me’s palliative training to learn about end-of-life care.

The team is also obsessive about getting customers’ feedback to improve the quality of nursing care provided. They constantly visit customers to take in feedback and the data and information collected are measured and evaluated to better meet clients’ needs.

Another area that Ling Ling’s team wants to look into is improving the communication flow with the hospitals on a palliative patient’s discharge plan. “Currently, the information we have comes from the discharge summary, which is very brief. We often need to re-take the patient’s history and find out what went wrong in the initial admission. We want to explore how patient information can be better exchanged between the hospitals and our nurses to make sure patients transit well from hospital to home,” she explained.

jaga-me will also continue to create higher awareness of community nursing resources as public awareness of such services remains relatively low.

NUS Nursing students are well-placed to accept the community nursing challenge as we were taught to think critically and learnt the skills and knowledge to take charge of patient care. Community nursing is empowering and the place for our graduates to create impact in and bring value to the community. But I encourage them to first spend two years in an acute care hospital to build a solid foundation.

Kuah Ling Ling