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The Warsaw Voice » Society » July 29, 2009
Health
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Healthy Business
July 29, 2009 By Michal Jeziorski   
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The market for private medical services in Poland has burgeoned over the past several years, fueled by the weaknesses of the public healthcare system. Today thousands of patients receive treatment in new private hospitals, clinics and doctor's offices every day.

Patients in Poland stopped counting on the public health service a long time ago. In theory, healthcare is available for free in the country, but in practice its costs are rising. Patients have to stand in long lines to receive medical advice; hospitals and clinics are housed in dilapidated buildings, and physicians' salaries are less than modest. Public spending on the health sector accounts for a mere 4 percent of the GDP and only one in five public hospitals was built after 1990. According to experts, at least zl.9 billion is needed to renovate and modernize the country's health centers and replace outdated medical equipment, but this money is unavailable because government finances are in poor condition.

Patients have to wait for weeks, if not months, to see a specialist. In part, this is because many Polish doctors and other medical staff have left the country to work abroad after the country joined the European Union in May 2004. According to the latest data, Polish hospitals and clinics have around 4,000 vacancies for doctors and 3,500 for nurses and midwives. Anesthesiologists, internists and pediatricians are the most badly needed.

Meanwhile, private clinics, hospitals and doctor's offices are thriving. They are accepting more patients and reporting annual revenue increases of 30-40 percent. Last year, a total of 2 million people used private medical services and, according to forecasts by the Polish Chamber of Insurance, this year patients will spend a record zl.30 billion on treatments. By 2012, the figure is expected to reach a staggering zl.40 billion.

The most popular form of private medical services are health packages that employers buy for their staff, but the private health sector also offers services for individual patients. These are provided by private doctor's offices, diagnostics centers, analytical laboratories and around 190 private hospitals. Private businesses have started to outperform public health centers in areas such as lab diagnostics, dialysis, hospital care and even emergency ambulance service. This year, private hospitals will account for almost 10 percent of all hospitalizations in Poland, a sharp increase from just 1 percent at the end of 2006. Around 600 of 1,500 analytical laboratories in Poland are in private hands. Private dialysis centers take care of over half the patients requiring treatment.

Private clinics attract patients by hiring specialists and providing services that meet European standards. Because of low salaries at public health centers, many doctors supplement their incomes by working for a private clinic or hospital. Although this practice has frequently been criticized, it turns out that doctors who work two or three shifts have helped build an alternative healthcare system that is capable of taking care of patients who need medical assistance.

The largest companies working in the medical business are primarily interested in enlisting companies rather than individuals for their services. The logic is simple: a deal with a company that has several hundred or thousand employees is more profitable, especially as it guarantees regular transfers of fees. Fixed monthly charges for health packages constitute the primary source of revenue for private medical companies. Besides, most employees decide to use private medical services even if they change their employer.

The market for private medical services relies on some 14,000 health centers (compared with 2,600 public ones) and 7,000-8,000 private practices managed by family medicine doctors. Private medical companies were bound to merge sooner or later, and slowly, but steadily, investment and private equity funds are beginning to buy shares in the largest medical centers in Poland. One example is Lux-Med, established in 1992, whose founder sold all the shares in 2006. A similar thing has happened to the LIM Medical Center, Medycyna Rodzinna, Promedis and many other companies.

This process of consolidation is good news, because it means an injection of new funds into the system and the establishment of private hospitals. For example, Lux-Med opened four new medical centers last year. This year, it has opened a clinic and will follow up with four new ones in the coming months.

The Medicover group has opened a new hospital this year with seven clinics: Children's Health; Surgery; Internal Medicine; Cardiology; Anesthesiology and Intensive Care; Obstetrics; and Women's Health. The hospital will also have its own physiotherapy center and a diagnostics unit. It will provide comprehensive medical services in pediatrics, children's surgery, obstetric care and intensive infant care. It focuses on women's health, gynecology and surgical oncology, and will also deal with pregnancy problems. According to Medicover, this is the largest hospital project in the history of private healthcare in Poland. Patients are accommodated in single and double rooms with internet access, telephone and cable television.

The private medical sector can benefit from the growing popularity of "medical tourism" whereby foreign visitors to Poland combine vacations with buying medical services here. The trail was blazed several years ago by dentistry, because Polish dentists are especially popular among tourists from Britain, Germany, Denmark and the United States. Many foreigners come to spend a couple of days in Poland and have their teeth looked after; many receive new dentures and dental implants. This year, Poland expects to attract around 200,000 medical tourists, who for now account for 1-2 percent of all visitors to Poland, but the number keeps rising rapidly and is expected to triple by 2013. What foreigners find most appealing about medical services in Poland are the prices, which are at least 30-40 percent lower than those in Germany or Britain. Dental treatment in London can be 10 times more expensive than in the central Polish city of £ód¼. It also pays off to come to Poland for plastic surgery and laser refractive eye surgery.

Medical tourism is one of the priorities of the Damiana Hospital, the first private hospital in Warsaw. Damiana provides its patients with quality services, and the staff speak English and German. Foreign patients are provided with comprehensive medical reports in English on procedures they have received, and those who hold insurance policies from international companies can have their bills paid cash-free. The most popular treatments, surgeries and procedures provided at the Damiana Hospital include complex health check-ups, plastic surgery, orthopedic surgery (joint replacements), eye surgery (cataract removal), laryngological procedures (endoscope-based surgery), and dentistry (dental implants).

Foreign customers are also keen to visit Polish sanitariums and health resorts. In terms of the number of health resorts, Poland comes in seventh in Europe and is becoming increasingly popular among German, Scandinavian, Italian and French visitors. Foreigners account for 80 percent of those who pay for the services of Polish sanitariums and health resorts from their own pockets without being reimbursed by the government. Sanitariums provide them with professional medical staff, quality treatments and attractive prices.
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