More MS news articles for Aug 2001

Healthy idea sparked by a wrong diagnosis

August 26 2001

WHEN Tony Fitzpatrick's mother was told she had multiple sclerosis, she was the oldest person in the world by about 20 years to be diagnosed with the disease.

Realising something was not quite right with the examination of his 62-year-old mother, Fitzpatrick tried to find out more about the crippling condition.

He was appalled by the lack of information available to him so he tracked down the MS Society and contacted the group's president. He told Fitzpatrick that it was virtually impossible for anybody to reach the age of 62 before being diagnosed with the disease.

Further tests showed that Fitzpatrick's mother had actually had a stroke. The steroids she was prescribed to treat MS had devastating effects, inducing even more strokes.

The information could not save Fitzpatrick's mother, who died from her condition and the prescribed treatment. "It wasn't anybody's fault," he says. "Can we reasonably expect a GP to be on top of everything? It's not humanly possible to know all areas of health and give 100% correct diagnoses all the time."

Startled by the lack of information available to doctors and to the public, Fitzpatrick, a retired television executive, could see a business opportunity emerging.

He also was struck by the dearth of health-based stories in newspapers and on television. There was a gaping hole in the market for an information company dedicated to health issues.

"This wasn't just a personal crusade," he says. "I would never have pursued this if it had not been a business with multi-million turnover potential."

From his flat in Bow, east London, he set about creating his vision. Using contacts from his time in the television industry, he started researching the idea of an online news network that would deliver information to the whole of the health community.

"With Sky News and other 24-hour news channels on the increase, the need for specialist comment was becoming essential," he says.

Fitzpatrick recruited qualified medical specialists to act as spokesmen to the media. He also started sourcing topical news stories from around the world. His venture expanded rapidly and soon became too big for one man and his flat. "The phone was going non-stop," he says. "Before long we were selling up to 60 stories a week to the press." He recruited two web designers and started to understand the power of the internet.

Fitzpatrick knew he had made it when in 1997, two years after starting his business, five radio producers phoned him within minutes of each other, asking what the health news agenda was for that day.

He collaborated with Nick Fisher of International Greetings, the gift-card company, to drive the business forward. Fisher is now non-executive chairman and Fitzpatrick chief executive.

The company is a leading provider of health information in Britain. It has 450 medical experts on its books. Clients include Abbot, Astra Zeneca, Wyth Laboratories, Sky, Telewest, and the Discovery Channel.

Born in Dublin but raised in Manchester, Fitzpatrick studied for his A-levels at Wigan & District technical college. An early claim to fame was causing a near-riot at Wigan market when a horde of teenage girls mistook him for Donny Osmond.

He started his working life as a teacher in 1978 but soon quit, fed up with policing rather than teaching. He joined the job centre service as a recruitment adviser and then went to Granard, a Saatchi & Saatchi subsidiary, before he was headhunted by Rogers & Cowan, an American-based entertainment marketing company. He was asked to run its British subsidiary, a product placement firm specialising in drinks and cigarettes.

In 1990 he formed his own marketing and production company called the Entertainment Partnership, working for BBC1 and TV-am.

Heading for 40, Fitzpatrick took a career break. "I didn't want to lie awake at night worrying about other people's mortgages," he says. "I sold my shares and was comfortable, but I wasn't about to disappear to the Seychelles." However, the lure of business was too much. His retirement lasted two weeks before he launched Health Media.

The company recently reversed into the shell Internet Direct and is now valued at £14m. It returned losses of more than £7m last year but the cash-burn is down to £30,000 a month, and the company is expected to be profitable by December.

"The loss was due to goodwill," he says. "Last year we made eight acquisitions. Our underlying business is extremely healthy."

One of the deals was the bolt-on acquisition of Talking Medicine, which makes educational tapes for doctors. "It's a fantastic business with 83% of listeners using it for prescribing information," he says. "We don't just specialise in new media - if someone wants a tape, that's what they'll get. After all, the medical director of Bupa reads the Lancet on the loo."

Fitzpatrick does not plan to take another break just yet. "This is the pinnacle of my career," he says.

Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.