The award-winning Athens Medical Group is the great modernizer of the Greek healthcare sector. With a long-term vision that embraces the best of talent and technology, the company has managed to pioneer and maintain best-in-class services despite the country’s challenging macroeconomic conditions. The Athens Medical Group operates 8 state-of-the-art clinics throughout Greece including the Interbalkan European Medical Center, one of the most highly ranked hospitals in Europe. In Romania, the Group runs the highly successful Medsana network of diagnostic centers. Leading German Healthcare Group, Asklepios Kliniken has a share of equity in the group, which is also partnered with leading institutes and universities in the US and the UK. Here, Vassili Apostolopoulos, the company’s CEO, explains Athens Medical Group’s vision for continued success
How has the Athens Medical Group evolved since its inception?
The journey started in 1984. It was the result of my father’s vision, our founder and Chairman of the group. His vision was to create a medical facility in Greece that would group the best technology available in Europe and the country’s best doctors under one roof. At that time, Greece lacked a lot of infrastructure and too many Greeks travelled abroad for medical needs. He wanted this facility to stop the outflow of Greek patients going abroad. So, what did he do? He invested in cutting-edge technology and attracted the best doctors. Very soon the venture became a big success.
The second important milestone for the group was in 1989 when the group established its first PPP project in healthcare in the Soviet Union. The USSR still existed, but the country was becoming more progressive. My father convinced the Soviet officials, and President Gorbachev himself, that such an investment would be an asset in their effort to liberalize the country and become investment-friendly. So that was the first time in history that Greece exported healthcare – excluding yogurt, and lemons and olive oil, that is. The company then started expanding in South Eastern Europe. We are still very active in Romania, where we have four centers and are expanding. At the same time, we branched out to more locations nationally, like in Athens, while always upgrading and expanding the capacity of existing facilities. It was a highly dynamic journey. All things considered, I believe that our group’s journey and initiative helped the country improve the level of healthcare services offered. We were pioneers, but other private and public healthcare facilities followed our path, which ended up further benefiting the country as a whole.
The next step was to fully reverse the outflow of patients: we wanted incoming foreigners coming to our centers. In the late 1990s, the idea for the Interbalkan European Medical Center solidified, as the cornerstone of our vision to establish Thessaloniki as a point of reference for medical services for the wider region- the Balkans and Southeastern Europe. At the end of the day, we managed to attract patients from more than 50 different country including ex-Soviet countries and the Arab world.
In what ways do you believe you are still setting the standard today?
The Athens Medical Center was the first private hospital in Greece to be operated by professional management. Before that, doctors who did not have a comprehensive understanding to follow and invest in technology, good practices and procedures ran all the private clinics and hospitals. My father and his team were the first professional management team able to deliver an inclusive vision. That was a huge change.
The second change we pioneered was to become technology-driven. We were pioneers in importing cutting-edge medical technology, biomedical equipment and know-how. For instance, if you look back at our history, we have delivered a lot of ‘firsts’ to this country – with robotic surgery being a case in point. We always have to be one step ahead – and that’s our motto. We are early adopters of all new cutting-edge technology in our field and the vision is ongoing. I am delighted to share with you that over the last two years we have even gone beyond being early adopters and are now taking part in its development and evolution. Actively contributing to the development of new technologies, knowledge and expertise. We have several centers of excellence and doctors cooperating with companies that manufacture equipment, we use our doctors and facilities to help develop the technology. For instance, we work as a test site for robotics equipment. We have launched several operations of this type, some of which were the first in Europe. We have this continuous flow of information and exchange of knowledge, which allows us to offer cutting-edge treatment and simultaneously share our expertise and experience to help drive global research and R&D in healthcare. I cannot give more examples presently due to confidentiality restrictions, some of the leading firms in the field trust us and the input we provide to improve their technologies.
How did your group manage to cope with the financial crisis?
The basic strategy of most companies was to start making cuts during this time, which also shrunk the companies in the process. But the companies that did survive this chaotic and very difficult era were those who used more innovative approaches. We figured the crisis would last and decided to use the period as an opportunity to remodel our business strategy. Of course, we tackled the cost side, but not to the point where it would affect the quality of services. This line was very well defined for us. During the crisis, we made no compromise in our level of services; indeed, we executed an ambitious investment program of around €50 million in 2013-2019.
We invested in new technologies, new medical procedures and in bringing back Greek doctors from abroad. When there was a brain drain in most of the country, we achieved a brain gain. We attracted important doctors from the US, the UK and Germany. We inspired them to come back. We managed to do what the state could not – provide the vision and the means to attract the most talented Greek doctors back to Greece. In a nutshell, we offered stability and prospect.
Medical tourism is a growing global market, but Greece attracts around just 3% of the world’s medical tourists. How can Greece develop in this area?
We have been acting as an ambassador for 30 years now. But having one ambassador is not enough; it requires a long-term national strategy to bring Greece into the medical tourism brand. And it is the responsibility of the state, and of the private sector to act. I am saying this because I see many companies looking at medical tourism under short-term business planning and terms; but medical tourism is a long-term project. One has to make strategic and far-sighted investments. Medical tourism is not just medical procedures; it is an entire experience. Greece needs to change its strategy, and we have been working systematically towards that end. We have seen it building-up over time, but to develop the full potential of the country will take many more years and a national strategy that is properly designed and executed – one that does not change every time the government does.
How can Athens Medical Group cooperate with Germany?
Even before we suspected that such a crisis was ahead, back in 2006, we started cooperation with German Asklepios Kliniken because we believed that at some point the market conditions would change. We calculated that privatizations would probably take place and we wanted a strong foreign partner that could bring in the know-how. We had the local know-how, and, combining the two helped us prepare for the country’s next era. This is one of our most important strategic partnerships.
How do you envision your future growth?
We have three planning horizons, and I think this is our distinctive element and advantage that keeps us ahead of our competitors in Greece. We have a strategy for the short, the medium and the long-term. There is certainly room for organic growth, and we have been steadily advancing investment plans, acquiring the latest biomedical equipment and technologies, attracting leading human capital – transforming our hospitals and expanding our capacity. We would also consider M&A activity but only if it makes sense to us. There is also a Greenfield project with an investment project of €200 million, which would include a contemporary medical complex and include a private medical school.
What is the role that education can play in the continuation of the group’s vision?
I believe that education could be and should have been one of the pillars of Greece’s growth. A lot of people in my generation and younger have studied abroad. I studied in the UK, for example. Our Group is planning to establish a medical school once the constitution allows, because it is our area of interest and expertise. Our vision for the medical school is long-term. We are here to stay, so I think establishing a medical school that could capitalize on the reputation and know-how of our group could provide good ambassadors for Greece in the future.
What further synergies do you see to be developed between the public and private sectors in Greece?
We firmly believe, that the private and public sectors are not competitors. They have complementary roles. But we must clearly define this role and I think that the time for that has come. Still, the structural reforms in the sector have not taken place to the extent that was needed. The role of the private sector is still confused.
How can Greece actively reboot its economy and create an environment to attract investment?
This can only come as a result of stability, predictably and at the end of the game, we need examples to verify the narrative. I am positive about the prospects of the country. I think the crisis was a big learning experience.
You have been the CEO since 2003. What do you feel has been your contribution to your group’s success?
Technology has always been part of our company’s DNA, so I would say what I have brought has been a new way of thinking about management, how to structure the group. We had several companies and subsidiaries, some were in the stock exchange, but we did mergers and acquisitions and changed the group structure. We also changed the management team. This provided the backbone for the business to deliver. When I became CEO, everything was running smoothly but I ended up in the crisis era. Now that I have seen both worlds, I feel more complete as a leader.