Taking a look at the neighbours: what Italy can teach Belgium about healthcare

During each three-year term of office, MINOZ – the research centre for operational management in hospitals – organises a study trip for its members. In September, Professor Brecht Cardoen, Professor Paul Gemmel and researcher Rein Robberecht paid a visit to Milan, together with 30 participants from a total of 12 Belgian hospitals. Not only did they visit innovative hospitals, but the group also got to see how Italy tackles healthcare in general. What are the basic principles? How is it financed? Is it a competitive landscape? It turned out to be a very instructive trip.

Educational journeys

The concept of a study trip appeals to the participants, says Herman Annaert, Operational Director of the AZ Delta hospital in Roeselare. “Not only are you presented with the theoretical side of a concrete situation or case, but also you get to see in person how the proposed model is translated into practice. The instructive interaction with the local staff provides that extra dimension which immediately gives the proposed model a practical interpretation. You can then hold this up against your own experience and examine it in a critical light. It goes without saying that the networking aspect should not be underestimated either.”

His colleague Wim Allemeersch, Deputy General Director of the AZ Sint-Rembert hospital in Torhout, also feels that a study trip offers a great deal of added value: “There is plenty of time to discuss your travel experiences with other colleagues and this allows you to take many new ideas back to the professional home front with you. What's more, this is a truly educational journey. Once every three years, Vlerick makes sure that we are completely immersed in a different healthcare system.” 

The cradle of innovation in the healthcare sector

Italy was not chosen as the destination for this study trip without good reason. “Few people realise that in recent years, Northern Italy has become a cradle of scientific innovation in the healthcare sector,” says Wim. “Not without good reason, certain hospitals in Milan have gained a global reputation in the medical or organisational fields. The far-reaching application of Balanced Score Cards is just one of the numerous skills which are deployed by the hospital management team. Terms such as ‘pathway management’ or the latest philosophy of ‘disease management’ also really opened our eyes. Finally, it is striking that the teams here have resolutely opted for ‘integrated care’, with specific attention to quality, accessibility, patient experience, education and research. Milan is really leading the way in this sector right now!

In the first instance, the programme therefore included visits to several innovative hospitals which are making a big difference from an operational as well as a medical point of view. The business case of Humanitas, above all, really made an impression on Herman. This for-profit hospital (already a concept we are unfamiliar with in Belgium) which was set up by an industrial group in 1996 mainly stands out as a result of its operational efficiency. “It all revolves around planning and organisation”, summarises Herman. “It was instructive to see how they translated ‘medically necessary and responsible care programmes’ into ‘process-engineered patient flows’. All the relevant (healthcare) players within the organisation become process operators, as it were, who are deployed at the right scheduled time in the care chain with the ultimate aim of ensuring that these care programmes take place with the maximum degree of efficiency. This global approach only works if several preconditions are present. After all, a care programme/care chain can only work in an optimal fashion if each link can be brought in at just the right time under the right conditions.”

Herman summarises the study trip as follows: “Quite apart from the specific properties, limitations and preconditions/operating conditions of the proposed cases in the area of (local) healthcare, the best practice cases mainly taught us that having the courage to continuously question common procedures (and habits) can lead to the far-reaching simplification and improvement of the ongoing processes, which not only benefits the efficiency of the organisation but can also greatly benefit the patient.

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