Specialisation required for Malta to become health tourism hub

MaltaProfile spoke to Dr Josie Muscat about the country’s potential as a medical hub as well as the Group’s plans for the future after the sale of their Sliema hospital fell through. He thinks Malta can learn a lot from Turkey’s health tourism industry.

Catering for about 85% of all private health care services in Malta, the Saint James Hospital Group has been instrumental in driving healthcare innovation on the Maltese Islands since its inception in 1984. Today, the Group provides a comprehensive range of healthcare services – ranging from simple blood tests and diagnostic scans, cosmetic surgery and dental services to complex surgery.

The Saint James Hospital Group is the premier private health care provider in Malta. Could you give us a brief overview of the company’s history and the key milestones of the Group?

Saint James Hospital started over 30 years ago as a very small private clinic. At that time, all private hospitals closed down in Malta and a few doctors, including myself, opened small clinics. We actually bought the equipment from the hospitals that were being closed. I started with one operating theatre and two beds in our clinic in Zabbar in 1984. We kept growing and investing, and  soon had 16 beds and two operating theatres. We also opened a cosmetic clinic in Attard, which is today known as Transforma, as well as an eye clinic in Sliema. We were growing at a substantial pace, and we started looking into investing in a larger hospital. In the 1990s two other private hospitals had opened – Capua in Sliema and St Philips in Santa Venera. St Phillips eventually closed, and in 2002, we finally managed to take over Capua Hospital in Sliema after previous attempts had been unsuccessful. The 60-bed hospital today includes a 24-hour Immediate Medical Care Unit, outpatient clinics, an in-patient pharmacy, an eye clinic, a maternity unit, medical and surgical wards and a cardiac intensive care unit. In addition, today we are operating two outpatient clinics in Burmarrad and Zebbug, the first private physical rehabilitation centre in Malta, a beauty clinic in SmartCity as well as a hospital in Libya and an eye clinic in Hungary. The Group employs around 500 employees, including approximately 100 doctors, and we cater for about 85% of all private health care services in Malta.

Given that Malta offers free public health care services, what would you highlight as Saint James Hospital’s competitive edge?

We try to stay abreast of medical developments, and throughout the past years we were often front-runners in introducing new treatments and diagnostic imaging services in Malta. Just to give you a few examples: in Malta, we were the first ones to perform IVF, we invested in the first MRI, we introduced keyhole surgery as well as laser surgery. More recently, we introduced breast tomosynthesis, also known as 3D breast imaging. It is basically a breakthrough in mammography that provides a clearer, more accurate view compared to digital mammography alone. We also recently started offering other treatments like autologous stem cell therapy, and a treatment for erectile dysfunction.

What are the key challenges that you are facing?

Obviously, we are constantly competing with the free public health services. I do not want to sound whiny, however it has often happened in recent years that the private sector had introduced new treatments and that the government introduced the same treatments to the public sector within a short time. Due to this, people tend to shift to the free public health care service. This was and will continue to be a major challenge for the private sector. Added to this, Malta is one of the few countries in which the private sector does not get any reimbursement from the government. Health insurance uptake is also relatively low in Malta, so many people still opt for the free public service, even if they will face a long waiting list.

You recently pursued plans to sell the hospital in Sliema but decided against it. What was the main driver for your decision?

The negotiations dragged on for too long, and I considered the uncertainty this created as being unfair to our employees. When I announced that I was not proceeding with the sale, there was a collective sigh of relief and a boost in motivation. I am proud of all our employees.

The government has recently reinforced its intention of positioning Malta as a hub for medical tourism. What is your opinion on this matter?

Malta boasts an ideal environment for people to recover, including an excellent climate, political stability, as well as the widespread use of the English language. However, I think what is lacking is a clear plan on how to actually turn Malta into a medical hub. Malta should look at Turkey, which has recently become one of the top destinations for medical tourists. The Turkish government has done a fantastic job in attracting investment, doctors and patients from all over the world. For medical tourism to really take off in Malta, we need not only several well-equipped hospitals but also a greater level of specialisation that would attract foreign patients from abroad. At this stage, we can only achieve this by attracting specialist doctors, and we need incentives to encourage them to come to Malta.

What do you think of the government’s recent decision to open the labour market to non-EU health care professionals?

There is a dire need of such occupations and trades. We must open to all professionals who are capable and specialise in new and innovative medical fields. If we guard our turf by shutting the doors to specialised people, we will not succeed in health tourism, which would be a great pity.

How would you assess Malta’s potential for research and development?

Research in Malta is still in its infancy. I believe there is a lot of scope for research, but of course we need to have a proper framework and incentives in place to encourage it. We, as a hospital, are also trying to do our best to innovate. At the moment, for instance, we are looking at introducing a cyclotron in Malta through a company which is partly owned by Saint James Hospital.

How do you envision the future of the Saint James Hospital Group in Malta?

It seems that we are going to face difficult competitive times. If we keep abreast of developments and place ourselves at the forefront of the private health sector, we can view these as the cusp of new, exciting – albeit difficult – times.

Dr Josie Muscat is the Chairman of the Saint James Hospital Group. Born in 1943, Dr Josie Muscat is married to Franca and is the father of six children and grandfather of 13. At the age of 22, he was elected as the youngest Member of the Maltese Parliament and remained very active in politics for 20 years. In 1971, he graduated as a Medical Practitioner. His practice was based in Zabbar, where he not only assisted hundreds of mothers to give birth but also eventually pioneered the Water Births system in Malta. Through the years, he continued to expand his medical practice. He was also the founder of the Eden Foundation, which was instrumental in educating individuals with intellectual disabilities and introduced the facilitator system, which helped integrate children with disabilities into mainstream schools in Malta.


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