The Romanian healthcare system was put to the test by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it came through. MedLife, the largest private healthcare services provider in the country, managed to both treat non-COVID patients as well as build new labs from scratch. To find out more, Business Review talked to its CEO, Mihail Marcu.
By Aurel Constantin
How has MedLife tackled the coronavirus pandemic?
Mihail Marcu: We have carried out several projects to support Romanian authorities and businesses. For example, we developed a COVID-19 laboratory network in record time and started antibody testing. We designed special circuits and protocols for patients and implemented online consultation and telemedicine systems. MedLife was the first to carry out regular testing among its doctors, nurses, and patients and also had screening units dedicated to vulnerable patient categories – including a clinic which was exclusively dedicated to monitoring pregnant women during the lockdown.
Our network of RT-PCR testing labs is present in all major cities, and we organised a free national testing programme through these labs. We donated medical equipment to local authorities and COVID hospitals, such as those in Arad and Sibiu. We also made an entire hospital available to be used as a COVID-support unit.
How does MedLife fit into the system?
The hit from the virus was shocking, just like was for everybody else. It generated panic in the population, but also in the medical field; there was no protocol to treat this disease that had come out of nowhere. MedLife has a hub of out-patient units representing about 27 percent of our business. This hub receives around 20,000 patients per day, welcomed by about 5,000 people in our staff. It is not easy to secure this process during a pandemic.
We were the first in Romania to implement filters in our clinics as well as the first to send our doctors home after they had travelled abroad. We had to find ways to keep patients with different diseases apart, so we rerouted their way into our clinics. Then we moved on to testing our entire staff; around 2,000-3,000 are being tested weekly. We currently have 7 labs that can perform RT-PCR tests, so we can immediately test both staff and patients whenever necessary.
We were also the first in Romania to conduct certain types of research. During the pandemic, we carried out a study on the number of people who were ill and those who had antibodies for the coronavirus. It was the first study on antibodies in the entire Balkan region. It was carried out on 1,000 patients and discovered that less than 2 percent – perhaps as little as 0.5 percent – of people in our country had antibodies. And that is an important and interesting fact. The results were later confirmed by several studies conducted by other institutions.
The second study was conducted in Suceava, where the infection rate was huge. The city was locked down and nobody wanted to go there, but we went in to conduct our research. At that time, we found that 20 percent of the Suceava population had antibodies. The research shows the ways in which a region can evolve and provides very important information for medical professionals. The study was conducted by Romanian specialists only, without any help from abroad.
We have been involved in many other studies, including the first coronavirus genome sequencing, conducting in partnership with the Matei Bals and Colentina hospitals in Bucharest to see where new variants were coming from and how they could be recognised based on their genetic signatures. That meant we could find out whether the virus was coming from the UK or from Brazil, for example.
This kind of research is very costly and we do it without any external financial help from private or public entities, but we share all of our results with the Health Ministry.
How much have you invested in research in the past year? How did the company’s income evolve in 2020?
The value of investment is around EUR 500,000. I don’t have the exact figure because we haven’t yet crunched the numbers on things like transportation for staff and test samples, but the direct cost of all the tests we’ve carried out during the pandemic goes above EUR 300,000, and adding our other investments to that figure should result in about half a million euros.
The company’s revenues slightly increased last year, but I’m not able to release exact figures at this time as we must go through the Stock Exchange first – I can however say that we hope to reach EUR 250 million, which includes new acquisitions.
What are your plans for the future?
We have many plans. We will continue to do research to help the public sector monitor data about the pandemic and the evolution of the virus.
We are also launching a huge new programme to harness the fact that MedLife can access the medical histories of more than half a million subscribers – I think there are 690,000 of them by now. That means we have information from as early as 2010 from some of our patients, and we can analyse this data and identify those who are likely to develop cardiac issues or other diseases in the context of the pandemic. We will do that using data from more than 5.5 million people who have come in for various tests throughout the years. As for the 690,000 who are subscribed through their companies, we will be able to inform businesses which of their employees should not be placed on the front lines of a pandemic, as they may be at higher risk.
MedLife is the leader of the national healthcare market and we think it’s now time to take Romanian capital across the border. It would be great for all Romanians to see a company develop in such a way.
How do you see the pandemic evolving?
We must get rid of the fear and get more people vaccinated to be able to go back to the lives we had before. This is the most important thing right now.