Special feature: JORDAN

Interview with Dr. Hassib Sahyoun, Chief Executive Officer & Chairman, MedLabs Consultancy Group

May, 2017

QYou have been at the forefront of transforming laboratory medical diagnostic services in Jordan for over 30 years now, how would you say this segment developed over that period?

H.S.: Jordan’s medical services have always been at the forefront, inside the region. It is a medical hub, much more so in recent years. When I came to Jordan in 1981, medical services were quite advanced, but laboratory services were still a few years back, mainly because laboratories were built on a one-man shop. In order to make a difference, we had to do a group practice. We had to work hard for several years in order to set up this group practice. By 1993, we set up MedLabs, by getting together 5 specialists, each with their own specialties, all of them successful in their different fields. It was not easy at the beginning to agree on anything, but we all had the same vision.

Now we have almost 50 laboratories, we employ over 400 laboratory specialists, among 11 MD laboratory specialists and PhDs, who help the departments. We are seeking top level talent. It’s a group practice, not depending on anyone in particular. We have been able to systemize everything and we have the highest accreditations that we could get in the world, in America it’s the College of American Pathologists, the most difficult one to get, and we have had it since 2011. We also have the ISO 5189 accreditation (any lab in Europe needs to have this accreditation), and also the ISO 9001 for management.

Right now we have almost 50 laboratories in Jordan, Palestine, Northern Iraq and Sudan. More importantly we became a reference lab, where we have very sophisticated tests being done and quite a big volume of work coming from the region. These tests used to go to the US or to Europe but, because we managed to get all these accreditations, now we give them better turnaround times, transport is quicker, and the quality is the same.

We do have the highest standards in laboratory medicine in Jordan – we are leading the market in the area. Things are going well, expanding all the time, increasing our menu of guests, we are trying to give the highest standards to our patients and doctors. We don’t concentrate only on the high-income earners, we go to the masses. We have laboratories all the way down to Aqaba, we have the complete network, and the quality is the same across the board.

The employees are all Jordanian. On top of that we employ people from Palestine, Sudan and Northern Iraq, but the managers of the labs in these countries are our people. We vouch for the excellence of the people coming from the higher education system. Actually, now we are thinking of setting up a training academy for graduates. We are talking to people from the US and other places, they’re interested in collaborating, in order to make the graduates more employable but also to raise the standards. We will be giving them, in addition to the sciences, the practical part, which could take years, so we want to cut this down to the maximum in order to make the workers dependable. We hope to implement this project in 2017.

QLooking at the health sector in a wider sense, how do you think that the vision of, first King Hussein, and, more recently, King Abdullah II has influenced the health sector in Jordan?

H.S.: The beginning of the straightening of the medical sector in Jordan started in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s with the late King Hussein, who realised that the resources of the country were limited, and we needed to lift other services. He thought that the medical and educational services were the priorities. During this phase of history he did a fantastic thing by granting help for doctors to go specialise in the UK, Germany or the US and they came back with great experiences. This really strengthened the standards. Obviously, they first started in the public sector, but then they filtered into the private sector and encouraged doctors from this sector.

This is where the change started, and now it’s being supported. King Abdallah II is totally in support of that, helping to maintain the standards. Jordan is a hub for medical services, we receive patients from all over the region, and I don’t see why we don’t get patients from Europe, because the costs are much less and the specialties are here. Actually, there was a project here with the NHS, a few years ago, but it stumbled because of bureaucracy.

QYou mentioned that what really launched this progress was the exchange of knowledge with countries like the UK and Germany. How can this exchange keep moving forward?

H.S.: There are still grants and financial support for people to go train in these countries, but, more importantly, now everybody is looking at accreditations. This increases the communication with these countries, where these accreditations come from, and we are setting up our own standard accreditations with that, but adjusting them to the local needs.

Research and development sectors are also areas where exchange of knowledge is very important, this is happening all the time. The research and development sector needs also the university part of it, hospitals and so on. More and more teaching hospitals are coming up, more and more research topics in PhD and specialists are increasing. We are not there yet but this is something that is happening and I see it becoming strong within the next 5 to 10 years.

QWhat are some of the further developments that need to happen in Jordan in order to compete with western laboratory medicine and institutions?

We need to improve the bureaucracy, the support investment, but it takes a while, it takes an effort and it should be facilitated more. If we need to develop fast, we need to make the investment easier for investors; regulations should be more flexible, obviously within the law. Bureaucracy is something that we do suffer a little, the speed of things could be better.

QMedLabs is a leader in the health sector, you have become the region’s fastest growing network of private hospital medicine laboratories. Can you outline the group’s regional expansion plans, and how did Med Labs achieve such extensive growth in such a short time?

First of all, we did it by building a reputation. We strongly believe in ethics, and we all say that what’s right is right. We built a very strong reputation and people come to us, they trust us, which is a major part. Having all the sub-specialties and the wide range of tests also helped.

A quick goal is demand, whether locally or regionally, I wish we could go to more countries faster, but the limiting factor is not financial or regulatory but human resources. To expand, you need well trained human resources, and this is one of the factors that encouraged us to go for the training center. Usually we like to get people from the local population, but we need to send them to train and to be sure that our standards are maintained. Usually it takes a year or two to train them. So we are short on people.

Up to now, we’ve had good human resources available, but it’s becoming less and less. However, we are concentrating our expansion over the next 2 or 3, until the human resources situation improves, on the referrals business, and we are getting a lot of that.

QDo you ever see yourselves taking the leap to become a global player?

H.S.: Yes, most definitely, with the accreditations that we have, we have thought about Europe, the UK, Eastern countries in Europe too, and this is something that we are considering. Especially because in many of the Eastern countries it’s all about the public sector, the private sector is still developing, even in the UK. You need to find the niche, and this is why we concentrate in preventive medicine, we believe in it, not only as a business strategy.

Laboratories are not only there as a diagnostic system to help the doctor, we are also there to prevent the development of diseases. We encourage people to get a checkup once a year, and twice a year if you’re over 50 years old. Catch your disease early because the earlier you find it, the less treatment you need and the cheaper it is for you, the community and the country. This is the model that we want to take to Europe, especially with the strong health awareness that there is. I see this happening in 2 to 3 years; we are already working on it.

QCould you explain the ways in which MedLabs is leading in terms of utilising technologies?

H.S.: I’ll start with an example of the tests. One was the introduction of the neonatal screening, the test that we do to every newborn and that we strongly encourage. We do a panel of 46 tests from a few drops of blood from the heel of the baby on a filter paper. This technology was not available in Jordan or in most of the region, we introduced it 4 or 5 years ago. It needed a major investment because the equipment is expensive, and, more importantly, we needed the expertise, so we managed to get it. Now, we work thousands of tests a month, locally and regionally, and we continuously give lectures to give conscience, telling people that this is a life saver. The government does do this also, but 2 or 3 tests instead of the 46. The other thing was the vitamin D test. Vitamin D is very important to us. The classic technology for doing this test is expensive, so most labs are using the second method, much cheaper, but they don’t catch everything. Once we saw that there was a great demand, we decided to do it right and we invested half a million dollars to get the machine, to do the classical way. We are the first to bring this here and it’s going to be of great help. We also started with the food intolerance tests; lots of people get migraines, bloating, etc. because some foods don’t agree with them. That was introduced for 230 types of foods, and that proved useful, but now we went a step forward and also invested into doing it genetically. You can do a test from a cheek swab, get DNA and find out which foods agree with you and which don’t, so you can arrange your diet. This is now being introduced. This can also be done for the skin. It tells you the problems you could have, what kind of creams you need, and it also detects the risks of diseases of diabetes, and others in order to prevent them.

QWhat kind of legacy would you like to leave?

H.S.: That we made a difference, and we raised the standards of laboratory medicine locally and regionally, I think this is the legacy that we would like to leave behind us.

QWhat’s the lasting impression that you would like our readers to have of Jordan?

H.S.: That Jordan, at least in the medical and laboratory services, is providing standards as high as anywhere else. We invite investors to come and invest in this field; it gives good return on investments. Also, there is much need to raise these standards in the region. I would like them to be interested and know about the high standards that we have here. When we come to work with them, we work as equals.