Olga, as a philologist, how has fate brought you into the medical field?
– Growing up, my father was a famous doctor in Moscow, and in my youth I worked on weekends as a volunteer in one of the largest children’s hospitals in Moscow. And that, perhaps, was the sum of my entire medical experience! Having moved 20 years ago to Barcelona with a PhD in Philology, I was busy teaching my beloved Russian literature. But one day I read an article in the newspaper talking about how the association of the largest hospitals in Barcelona was helping people from different countries find the best specialists in Barcelona, and at the same time helping specialists from other countries learn from the success of the Catalan healthcare system through a series of healthcare management courses. In those years, there was still no such concept as “medical tourism”, which would only emerge as an often misused umbrella word for all things involving cross-border medicine many years later. Having said that, there’s no doubt that what the association was doing was that kind of activity in this area, although it clearly went beyond the scope of what is usually referred to as “medical tourism”.
And you decided to take part in this project?
– I knew about the real needs of people thanks to my former experience as a volunteer. This made it possible for me to see the picture very clearly: the health systems of different countries in the modern world strive to reach the same level, but it takes years to build a system that’s effective. Years which some of us simply do not have. People who find themselves in particularly difficult situations – battling with cancer, recovering from a stroke or dealing with congenital diseases – cannot wait for all the necessary conditions for effective and generally accessible medical care to materialize in their country. We need to help them here and now! At that point, I already knew for certain that Barcelona was one of the capitals of European medicine. This city has all the basic ingredients needed for organizing medical assistance at the highest clinical and human level … That is why I made up my mind to go for it: the project seemed to me both beautiful and necessary, and the fact that we could build it with the participation of the best hospitals in the city was a sturdy foundation that enabled us to do everything professionally and responsibly from the very beginning. Not to mention that it was a chance to learn so much!
That is some professional u-turn…
– At first I needed to gain the experience necessary in order to work effectively. I learned on the go with the brilliant organizers of the Catalan healthcare system, and finally earned an Executive MBA diploma. My responsibility at the very beginning was limited to Eastern Europe, but soon, at the hospitals’ request, I became responsible for the strategy of international development in all countries. I tried to structure the work in a way that seemed right, efficient, decent and convenient for people, not forgetting to add a great deal of GENEROSITY – which is a must when it comes to this kind of project. For example, the association hosted foreign delegations from a very wide variety of countries, generously sharing the experience of creating an effective system with the health authorities of other nations, with hospitals directors and medical schools. It was then that the backbone of BMC was created – a team of people who were and are still to this day engaged in the provision of medical assistance to foreign patients, as well as courses for healthcare leaders and consulting projects for the healthcare structures of different countries.
What are the core principles that you’ve adopted?
– We follow our inner convictions, doing our best to be principled, uncompromising, and demanding of ourselves. However, these are all nothing more than pleasant sounding words without a crack team, which needed assembling, and without a clear system of work procedures, which needed building. For example, we had to collect a huge amount of information and structure it so that in each case we could be guided by reliable criteria when choosing a specialist, and not just personal sympathy. We had to learn to work at a different pace, and to put in place algorithms which – and I stand by these words – no one in any country had practically thought of back then. Even today, in most countries, confidential medical information nonchalantly makes its way through the network without the slightest adherence to privacy protection.
The fact that, from the very beginning, we worked under the guidance of the best hospitals has accustomed us to rigor and perfectionism in these matters. At the same time, we established excellent connections with the directorates of the largest hospitals in Barcelona, for which our team served as an international department and helped in the creation of their own international departments in the various clinics.
And the path from association to BMC?
A few years ago, Barcelona’s largest hospitals unified into a single platform with government structures in place to promote Barcelona as the international world capital. It was then that the directorates of the largest hospitals proposed the initiative of creating a separate organization that would continue to serve patients and manage institutional communications, exchanges of expertise and consulting support for international hospital projects. This organization was Barcelona Medical Consulting or BMC for short.
Your organization helps patients from different countries, but not everyone can afford to get care from the top specialists in Barcelona, or at the Mayo Clinic…
The question of social and just generally human justice always springs up when you work in our field. We decided to do everything in our power in two ways: helping specific patients and helping to improve health systems. First, we try to help patients from poor families. Sometimes, it can be just a matter of finding charitable foundations and various social institutions that can support them. Of course, among the patients coming to Barcelona there are many of the world’s best and greatest, but thanks to the help of various social organizations even people in very difficult circumstance, for example children from very dysfunctional families, can come here too. We even have several distinct programs, through which we help such families to find free accommodations for the duration of the procedures, we organize free translation services for them, etc.
And on the other hand – and this is no less important – we are doing everything to spread the finest expertise in healthcare. We conduct courses, seminars and consulting projects to guide the healthcare of different countries. For example, the top experts from the leading countries in the world come to Catalonia to learn from our experience in organizing transplantation and neurorehabilitation services. The same applies to consulting in the field of public-private partnerships in healthcare, or the organization of a single register and monitoring quality and effectiveness indicators for the system. By the way, among these projects we have singled out several programs which we also conduct in the interest of solidarity: thus, we are currently helping NGOs in several countries to create various registers in those countries.
Tell us about your team: who’s in charge of realizing BMC’s projects nowadays?
– Today, our company assembles an international team with the most extensive experience in the organization of medical care in Spain: over the past 7 years, our specialists have arranged treatment for 4,000 patients from five continents. The service is set up so that we can guarantee a direct line of communication with a personal coordinator 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You might think that this sounds a little like a call center… Nothing of the sort, it is a promise of constant support, and not one given by an abstract operator to an abstract patient, but by a personal curator who is always aware of the smallest details, who can offer true care, who is not only efficient, but also sensitive.
At the same time, we receive about 40 delegations from different countries per year, train about 15 groups of health professionals annually, and conduct international project support for the largest hospitals in Barcelona. Our uniqueness lies in the fact that our clients include patients, corporate entities, healthcare managers and hospitals. And this allows us to gain experience and knowledge applicable to each of these groups, experience to which we simply would not have access if we were dealing with only one of these lines of activity.
We are also often invited as speakers for appearances at international forums, conferences on health systems reform, congresses on the organization of healthcare and “medical tourism” – a term that we try to avoid in our work.
Because our customers – as a rule, people with severe illnesses – are not tourists, not even medical ones. These are patients and their families, for whom the most important priority is not a beautiful city setting or a pleasant climate, but the highest level of medical care. And it is in the provision of the latter that our responsibility lies. That is our responsibility to them, to hospitals, to charity funds, to the ministries of Health, and, of course, to ourselves … And the magic of Barcelona is just an added bonus!