#25x25Interview | Georgios Sofianos (SofMedica Group): Opening new roads for the healthcare systems in the region with digital and robotic innovation

Business Review continues the #25×25 Interview Series with another episode featuring a company that has been for 25 years on the Romanian market: SofMedica Group. For this occasion, we sat down with none other than the Group’s CEO & Co-Founder, Georgios Sofianos.

Starting with a bit of historical background, what can you tell us about your company’s entry into Romania back in 1996 and about your industry as a whole back then?

Healthcare as we know it today was a completely different industry back in the mid 90’s. And by different, I mean that basic needs remained unmet after a decade of Romania’s isolation and ban on imports including those of vital medical devices and implants such as artificial kidney machines or mechanical heart valves. As most of us probably remember, the healthcare sector was practically exclusively public, with just very few private outpatient clinics trying to make a break in the paradigm, with baby steps at first. Needless to say that they were only addressing a very small part of the population and for very specific and non-critical needs.

This is why the founders of SofMedica focused on the needs of the system and its patients, and on the opportunity, rather than on the countless bureaucratic hurdles of that period. And their inspiration came from a handful of key medical personalities of that time such as Prof. Alexandru Oproiu, with an impressive track record in fighting cancer, Dr. Dimitrie Capsa, who dedicated his entire career to fighting renal disease and helping patients with the most innovative treatments in the field at those times, or Prof. Ioan Pop de Popa and Prof. George Georgescu who revolutionized the field of treating heart disease in the country.

We decided thus to start investing in the medical infrastructure of the public sector based on a long-term amortization plan and having as warranty only the trust in the system plus the word of some select physicians and managers.

How did your company navigate during all those years in Romania in terms of goals, achievements, challenges, and opportunities?

Through the innovative healthcare technologies we made available, we have always made a goal to position ourselves ahead of our times. Early on we realized that only with the implementation of a solid Quality Management System we could overcome the challenges coming our way and gain credibility with both regulatory authorities and clients. However, when we started implementing it, the concept was still raw in the country and many used to doubt that it would catch on, especially since the regulations in the field were somewhat fluid at that point. Besides the QMS, we invested also in a strong Compliance Policy, especially important in a highly regulated, high-risk industry like healthcare. This has become a pivotal part of all our practices. Still, with both the QMS and the Compliance Policy, it often felt as going against the current, but come the integration of Romania in the EU, it showed us how important it was to have had these implemented well in advance and how much easier the adherence to the new requirements proved. What turned out to be even more valuable is that it also added significantly to the sustainability of our business model and allowed for its smoother repeatability in more businesses and countries.

One other focus has been the continuous investment in clinical and technical support infrastructure, but above all in the training of healthcare professionals in the public sector at start, and afterwards in the private one as it was popping up and growing. This aspect could be seen as an important challenge in the beginning as it meant that we were constantly defying the sirens which were foreseeing that educated physician and nurses would have a higher chance to immigrate, for example. However, our purpose is to show healthcare professionals that they can benefit in their own country from similar conditions and technologies as in the more developed ones abroad. And they can provide the best of care to the final beneficiary of our common efforts, the Patient. In other words, they are empowered to provide the same quality of care as abroad in their own country, to their own people, and in their native language, thus contributing effectively to the wellbeing of the entire nation.

All the above contributed to building a strong culture that enabled us to attract talent in our own organization, as well as to build strong valuable Partnerships with leading MedTech innovation companies. Nowadays we are evolving by continuous learning, and we highly value this process as it keeps us relevant in the fast-paced industry we activate in.

What is the proudest moment for your company in its 28 years in the Romanian market?

There have been a lot of proud moments for the company since we started operating in Romania, and afterwards, as a Group in the region.  Some of them revolve around the premieres we brought about both in Romania and the South East Europe region, such as the 1st implantation of an artificial heart in Romania, the 1st Home Dialysis Program, the 1st Robotic Surgery Program or the 1st transcatheter valve implantation. We also take pride in developing the 1st minimally invasive surgery simulation center in SEE, since the training of healthcare professionals is of high importance to us. Still, the moment I think of as the proudest is the legacy we created for our ISLE Academy through a partnership with City, University of London in an EU-funded project running an educational program between 2011 and 2014.  The project was called European Medical School – Training of medical personnel in innovative technologies and modern dialysis procedures and through it we have accomplished the training of 600 healthcare professionals. It is worth mentioning that out of the total number of participants, around three quarters were employees of public and private centers that were either clients or direct competitors of ours. A special moment from this project is the one when, with a heavy tone of voice and wet eyes, the head nurse of one of the centers owned by a renowned multinational dialysis network, thanked our team publicly for simply considering her and investing in her skills for the first time in the two decades since she had graduated from the nursing college.

Moving into the present, how would you describe your company’s role in the current social and economic context?

We have long understood and seen the unlimited potential of the New & Emerging Europe in terms of providing reliable healthcare services and we know that to catch up with Western Europe it needs to accelerate the rhythm of adopting innovative solutions and developing the existing infrastructure. And because in our interconnected world good healthcare has become to be perceived as a given by the citizens, even in the most remote village, and not a privilege for an elite of any sort, people have started seeking it and going after it. This is where we step in: our mission is to help create all the conditions, and bring the necessary solutions and training here, in our cities, so that the patients can get the best available treatment now, as closely as possible to their homes, with innovative medical technologies, that otherwise might not arrive at all. This also makes it possible for the best healthcare professionals either not to leave or, even to return and serve the people in their own language and culture, as they can benefit here from all the amenities they need or aspire to. We are therefore working at building the bridges between the innovation in healthcare coming from the West and the healthcare professionals and patients in our region.

Moreover, through the youngest company of the Group, Emerald Medical Center we ensure multidisciplinary diagnostic and treatment for patients in Romania with cardiovascular and neurological diseases, focusing on predictive medicine, combining genetics and imaging for a very early and precise diagnose. It is within the core value proposition of Emerald to offer a personalized medical service, with a patient centric approach, aligning ourselves with the actual needs and expectations of the patient: to be listened to and to have all the necessary information for understanding the diagnostic and the logic behind the recommended treatment.

Worth mentioning here that our entire ecosystem, which currently extends into another five countries beyond the Romanian borders, is still using Bucharest as our headquarters for the entire region.

No one has a crystal ball, so we won’t ask about the next 25 years. But looking into the future, how do you see the road to 2030 for both your company and the industry you represent?

We have been opening new roads for the healthcare system with our digital and robotic technologies since almost three decades now. Given this legacy on the one hand and the recently increased appetite of adopting innovation by the healthcare providers on the other, we will soon see these roads turned to veritable highways, thus delivering life-saving innovation in a faster and much more dependable way. We will not refrain to being just an innovator in terms of making the best therapies available; we are also working profusely at changing the paradigm in the healthcare industry by creating real-life partnerships between key stakeholders for the benefit of the patients: between specialist physicians acting in a multi-disciplinary way; between the public and the private sector working as one; between countries and national health systems beyond their geographical borders; even between different segments of our industry such as medical technology, healthcare services, innovative start-ups, real estate hosting hospitals and outpatient clinics. All the above for the best interest of the patient.

If there is one major lesson that we can learn from the Covid19 pandemic this is that through collaboration we can achieve so much more, in a better, faster and more affordable fashion.