It is no secret that Greece received a beating in the 2008 economic slump, or that the road to recovery is neither straight nor easy. Fortunately for the country, businesses with the resources to effect change are working behind the scenes, to enable new growth avenues, support entrepreneurship, and attract foreign investment.
One such entity is Athens Medical Group, a leading private healthcare provider. The sector was anything but immune to the crisis, seeing spending drop sharply by 40 percent in the period 2009-2015, mirroring the contraction in national GDP.
Cuts in social security coverage, and consolidation in the healthcare sector (for example, between 2012 and 2014, the number of hospitals was reduced by one-fifth, whilst the average size grew by 5 percent), forced many healthcare specialists to find employment abroad, causing a brain-drain in one of the areas that most directly affects any country’s well-being. It also led many Greek residents to seek treatment elsewhere.
In defiance of the recommended modus operandi of austerity, and in an effort to bridge the gap left wide open in the market, Athens Medical Group chose to selectively cut corners – up to the point that would not affect the level of services provided. They then turned around and invested 40 million euros in new technologies.
According to CEO, Dr. Vassilis Apostolopoulos, this strategy has indeed helped in slowing the brain-drain; keeping Greek patients at home, and even attracting foreign patients to Greece.
“We not only provided a shelter for top quality Greek doctors to remain in their country, but also we managed to attract some key doctors from Europe and the United States, and to repatriate them back to Greece, giving them not only the tools. but also the vision that they should return to Greece and take part in this effort of reshaping Greece.” said Dr. Apostolopoulos.
Medical tourism is a potential goldmine for the country. Famous for its rugged coastlines, picture-perfect white and blue villages, white sandy coves and, of course, the ruins of one of the West’s most important and influential ancient civilisations – Greece is a gold-standard tourist destination. Adding top-notch medical services would enhance its attractiveness, and doubtlessly boost tourist arrivals.
Athens Medical Group is an important player in this embryonic industry. Its European Interbalkan Medical Centre in Thessaloniki, in the north, was named the “most contemporary hospital facility in Europe” by the UK’s Imperial College medical school, and serves the greater South Eastern European region. The group’s other seven hospitals are located in the greater Athens metropolitan area.
Dr. Apostolopoulos pointed out yet another of Greece’s boons: “On one hand, Greece is the country where democracy was born, so this is the leading governance system worldwide – still it is, and on the other hand, modern medicine was born in Greece with Hippocrates, Asclepius, etc. Combining the two, the democratisation of healthcare boils down to the freedom of choice for the patient to choose the doctor, to choose the hospital, but also to choose the country. So there is where I believe that Greece has a tremendous opportunity to capitalise on.”
What the group’s International Patients’ Department offers visiting patients, is a sort of turn-key service: from travel arrangements and tourism experiences, to treatments and follow-up attention.
In terms of technological research and development, and its implementation, the group teams up with large multinationals with a strong focus on artificial intelligence (AI). Examples include IBM’s Watson and Google, and Johnson & Johnson’s Surgery 4.0.
The fear of robots taking over all the world’s jobs is still a thing of science fiction, yet what AI can to do to improve healthcare is something very real. However, it must work in tandem with human capital, according to Dr. Apostolopoulos.
“We very much believe that artificial intelligence would not substitute human intelligence. We believe that human intelligence plus artificial intelligence would lead to augmented intelligence, and this is what is needed in order to provide the best possible service to the patient.” he commented.
He also believes that in the future, we will move towards more prevention and fewer treatments, and those will tend to be minimally invasive.
The decision to spend rather than scrimp during the economic crisis, is one that Dr. Apostolopoulos preaches openly in his role as President of the Hellenic Entrepreneurs Association. He sees the bright side of the situation; namely, that the mind-set of young people shifted from public sector aspirations, to a stronger entrepreneurial spirit. “They have produced some incredible ideas, innovative ideas, so the Greek start-up ecosystem has developed a lot with bright ideas”, he said.
“What I believed in the very first instance of this crisis, that [the] way to go forward was to create new wealth for this country, new jobs, new opportunities – so that there will be growth, and this country can get out of the crisis.”
Leading by example, Dr. Apostolopoulos is not only taking important steps to modernise the Hellenic healthcare sector, he is also contributing to inspire a new generation of business leaders to reinvest in their country, while facing Greece’s slow – yet steady – recovery, with optimism and an outward-looking attitude.