Walter Ebm, CEO of Wiener Privatklinik, on why Romanian patients seek treatment in Austria
Wiener Privatklinik (WPK) has seen a growing number of Romanian patients in recent years. At the time the institution opened an office in the country in 2016, around 10% of its international patients came from Romania. By 2019, the percentage had grown to 35%.
Vienna has always been a favorite destination for medical tourism because of its proximity to the country, and Romanian patients trust the Austrian healthcare system, Walter Ebm, CEO of WPK, explains. Many are requesting the services of WPK's dedicated oncology center, and the institution has also seen an increase in the demand for check-up services. The pandemic-related travel restrictions impacted the flow of patients in the first part of 2020, but the situation recovered starting this year. While WPK isn't looking to open clinics abroad, it plans to expand the services it offers to international patients looking for treatment in Austria.
More about what draws local patients to WPK, the segments the institution considers interesting in the local market, and how it dealt with the pandemic in the Q&A below.
When did Romania start to feature more prominently in the share of international patients at WPK?
Due to its proximity to Romania, just 2 hours away, Vienna has always been a favorite destination for medical tourism. The Austrian healthcare system as a whole is recognized as one of the most advanced in Europe, and historically it has pioneered many innovations in medicine, so it has earned the trust of Romanian patients. In 2016, when we launched our first office in Romania, the share of Romanian patients was about 10% of international patients, and since then it consistently and significantly gone up. Over these years, Romanians have chosen our hospital for the innovative treatments available as well as for the expertise of the specialists here. For example, our oncology center is providing patients with immunotherapy, a state-of-the-art treatment that several years ago was not yet available to Romanian patients.
You set up a first office in Bucharest in 2016, followed by another one in Timișoara. How did that impact the share of Romanian patients WPK treats? How did the number of Romanian patients evolve since then?
The number of Romanian patients has steadily increased. Before the pandemic, in 2019, more than 1,000 Romanians accessed the services of WPK hospital, representing around 35% of the international patients number. More than half of them requested the services of our dedicated oncology center, WPK Central European Academy Cancer Center, followed by those in need of general surgery and orthopedic or cardiovascular interventions. We had also noticed an increasing demand for check-up services. The fact that we have opened 2 representative offices in Romania has definitely created an easier communication bridge between patients in Romania and the hospital in Vienna. Patients have a designated case manager, who speaks Romanian; they receive help in choosing the best doctor for their medical problem and their travel to Vienna is also facilitated. This makes the whole process of accessing our medical services much easier and faster.
Are you considering opening other offices in the country? Do you target other cities/countries in the region?
At the moment, we have no plans to open new offices in Romania. Depending on how the situation evolves, we are considering opening representative offices in Ukraine, in Kyiv, and in Russia. We have many international patients from these countries.
Are you considering other ways of tapping into the local market?
We considered at one point and have not yet abandoned the idea of tapping into the pharmacy and medicine trading segment as we have such a business line in other European countries (Czech Republic, Austria). Generally, we are open to evaluating any opportunities related to medicine and healthcare.
What other development plans do you have for the region, and Romania in particular?
WPK's development strategy involves expanding our reputation and medical excellence recognition in most Central and Eastern European countries such as Slovakia, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, etc. We do not plan to open clinics abroad, but rather to enlarge and improve the services we offer to international patients looking for state of the art treatment in Austria. It is very difficult to open and run clinics in other countries, because of several reasons; the main one is related to the quality assurance in locations far away from our core medical hub (our hospital) where the expertise is established. Instead, we choose to double the capacity of our hospital. We recently acquired a building, right next to our existing premises and we are currently in the process of modelling the future of our hospital.
What percentage /number of the patients come from Romania at present? How did the pandemic impact this? What other factors influence the number?
Of course, we too have been affected by the travel restrictions in the first half of 2020, but it is the patients who have suffered the most and who have been unable to receive diagnostic and treatment services. However, as soon as the travel restrictions were relaxed and regulated, we were happy to see that patients were once again confident to travel for medical purposes, and our hospital remained a top choice for them. Around 900 patients from Romanian chose Wiener Privatklinik in the first 6 months of 2021, up 35% compared to the same period of last year.
Why do patients from Romania seek treatment at WPK? What are some of the factors shaping their decision to reach out to a hospital in Vienna? Has this changed in any way since the pandemic?
We are recognized for our medical expertise, particularly in oncology and complex surgery. Our cancer center - WPK Central European Academy Cancer Center is the largest and most sophisticated private oncology facility in Central and Eastern Europe. Most Romanian patients seek our services both because of the expertise of the medical team and the fact that they can benefit from diagnostic and treatment services in the shortest possible time. As soon as they arrive in Vienna, the time between the first hospital visit for medical investigations and the start of the treatment plan is only a few days. The immediate availability of diagnosis and treatment makes a very impactful difference for many of our patients. The oncological patients also benefit from a multidisciplinary approach to their cases, as most cases are discussed by physicians in the Tumor Board, consisting of oncologists, radiologists, surgeons and other specialists who consult and decide the best therapeutic approach. We provide patients with state-of-the-art treatments and innovative methods of diagnosis and treatment. For example, immunotherapy drugs. If a new drug is approved, we make sure that our patients receive it as soon as possible.
What type of care/services do they seek?
In addition to oncology services, this year the most requested medical services were cardiovascular surgery, thoracic surgery, sarcoma and orthopedic surgery. Once again, the short waiting time for surgery, the latest surgical methods used, and the 5-star hospital conditions are the reasons why Romanian patients want to have surgery in Vienna. We also have more and more requests for second opinions, as patients want to be sure that the diagnosis and treatment they are following are correct, or they want to try another therapeutic approach.
What percentage of staff comes from Romania (doctors & nurses/other staff)? Are you recruiting from Romania?
Because we want Romanian patients to feel as comfortable as possible, we have Romanian-speaking staff. I can start with our three case managers, 2 in Romania and one in Vienna, who assist the patients during medical investigations or even during consultations in order to facilitate communication with the doctors. Besides them, we also have Romanian speaking staff at the reception and among the nurses. We have had constantly recruitment campaigns for nurses from Romania. In addition to professional experience, it is necessary for them to speak German and English for a smooth communication with our local and international patients.
How did WPK fare during the pandemic? What has changed in your approach? What is here to stay?
During the pandemic, our main focus was the health and safety of both patients and medical staff. Last year only, we invested an overall amount of EUR 500,000 in masks, tests, dedicated staff for access filters, and other Covid prevention and safety procedures. As soon as Covid vaccines were available in Austria, we made them immediately available to our entire staff to ensure their protection and our patients' protection.
We are regularly testing our medical staff as well as the auxiliary staff. No patient enters the hospital, either for investigations or for hospitalization, without first having a PCR test. As regards disinfection, we have purchased a EUR 60,000 UV robot, which plays an extremely important role in the disinfection protocol against Covid-19. It will continue to be used for disinfecting the spaces, as an additional measure we are taking to increase protection and thus prevent any risk of infection.
How did the pandemic impact the overall influx of international patients?
The overall influx of international patients suffered, especially during the first months of the pandemic. However, we have worked with the authorities in Austria and the patients' home countries to facilitate the travel of international patients to Vienna, many of whom needed to continue treatments that they started before the pandemic. For example, more than 300 Romanian patients were able to receive treatment at the hospital's oncology center. In order to travel to Vienna, we provided them with the necessary medical letters for both airplane travel and transit through Hungary by car.
How did you approach telemedicine during the sanitary crisis? Did you have this type of service already available? Was it something you developed during the pandemic?
At the time when countries' borders were closed, we decided to use the advantages of technology innovation for the benefit of our patients. Thus we created the WPK Online HealthCare Center platform, a virtual clinic that can be accessed by both international and Austrian patients in need of online medical consultations. We have experts from more than 30 specialties in the virtual clinic, and patients can also request translation assistance if they need it. If we are referring to Romanian patients, more than 100 have accessed online medical consultations in the first months of this year.
What can you disclose regarding WPK's revenues/ patient numbers/ financial expectations for this year?
Considering the increased addressability in the first semester, we hope to get as close as possible to the pre-pandemic figures in terms of both patient numbers and revenues. In 2019 our group's turnover (which includes the hospital, a nursing home and a pharmaceuticals division) was around EUR 55 million. There are many international patients that are now coming to WPK to treat their conditions that aggravated during the pandemic. Some of them have been unable to travel because of restrictions, others have delayed medical check-ups or treatment for fear of the Covid infection.
(Photo courtesy of Wiener Privatklinik)