Building a business in the West Balkans
Dr Ervin Kostakis, Chief Medical Officer for Albanian Intercare Services Group (Albintercare), explains how his firm provides assistance in the West Balkans
In the summer of 2019, we launched our medical assistance project for the West Balkans, following a decade of positive trends in tourism, and in the number of visitors travelling to the region. We were glad to see an immediate interest from the first partners to whom we introduced our platform.
The cases rolled in, and now it was time to test the effectiveness of our network of medical professionals – which was designed from scratch the preceding months. This was the culmination of many years working on different travel insurance projects in Greece.
Recovering from a difficult past
Politically, the West Balkans is composed of Albania, as well as various countries that gained independence after the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Herzegovina; Kosovo; Serbia; Montenegro; and North Macedonia. Its inhabitants are predominantly of Albanian and Slavic origin, with differences in culture, religion and outlook. Historically, these nations have been at war over the centuries. During the 1990s, the only foreigners in the region were peacekeeping forces and international organisations called in to resolve the differences between ethnicities. Memories are still fresh of the conflict in Bosnia, NATO attack in Serbia, atrocities in Kosovo, and turmoil in Albania during 1997.
The backbone of our network were the professionals who had experience with international clients
In the past few years, the region’s governments – in particular Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia – have been cooperating to strengthen market ties, and ease border and tax procedures, under an initiative called Open Balkan. The aim is to form a ‘mini union’ of these countries that have expressed a wish to become members of the European Union (EU), or are in the process of bringing legislation into EU alignment. Subsequently, investments in accommodation have increased, and in the past decade, inbound travel has increased – Albania’s figures for incoming visitors rose consistently year-on-year until 2019.
Gathering info and establishing networks
In response to this growing travel demand, we recognised the necessity for providing high-standard medical services for travellers. We initially collected information about the health system, legislation, and local rules in each country. We consulted specialists who had the highest knowledge of tourism policies, and who have studied the nationalities that visited the most. We mapped the facilities that might cooperate in building an effective network near popular tourism destinations and the main cities.
The backbone of our network were the professionals who had experience with international clients, and were predisposed to following the case until its thorough completion on medical terms. Summer 2019 was the perfect moment for starting our project because of the traveller volume – including as many nationalities as possible coming from all continents. We informed the first clients, that in turn immediately assigned us our initial cases.
Procedures and standards
The new central office utilised documentation and procedures that incorporated my experience on different travel insurance-related projects in Greece, as well as a thorough knowledge of proper processes. We employed electronic managing systems to organise cases.
Processes included an initial ‘on spot’ visit; a thorough investigation with an accompanying specialist; hospitalisation and medical clearance; as well as medical transport, repatriation, or escorts.
The foundation stone is the expertise of procedures, ways of operating in diversified environments, and the solid methods of resolving evolving issues
Organising on spot visits was an initial priority, because most travellers were coming from Eastern European countries where these procedures were commonly used. Doctors were selected from resorts as near as possible to minimise response time. Secondary facilities for diagnostics and specialist visits were contacted by travelling to hotspots along the West Coast of Albania and Montenegro, as well as in the major cities. Tertiary public facilities were contacted when first cases were raised. Training of medical professionals and the staff facilities was done through continuous contact, to ensure compliance with our requirements.
It was necessary to give emphasis to a better completion of medical documentation, and access to medical information, in order to improve case following and medical clearance. Despite this, some private facilities were already using direct billing procedures, and cooperating already with international clients. Initially, we used their infrastructure, and contacting new ones at the same time who were not aware of the process. Subsequent information and continuous contact at every case was necessary to improve documentation and flow of medical information.
Covid-19 and geopolitical challenges
From 2020, the coronavirus pandemic slowed visitor flow into the West Balkans – at which point, another trend emerged. All countries in the region were involved in a surge of air and ground ambulance evacuations, serving either insured or private critical patients suffering from Covid-19, who sought more adequate support abroad.
A network of well-equipped ground ambulances with crews of high-level expertise was needed for these types of transports. We supported this process in all airports in our region, from Banja Luka in Bosnia, to Ohrid in North Macedonia. There were days when up to five ground ambulance operators were used at the same time, at the same airport. After these demanding cases, this activity had become easier for conventional repatriations.
The war in Ukraine and geopolitical developments led to further change, as the nationalities that traditionally topped visitors’ figures were from the countries involved. From 2022, Western Europeans began to visit the region more frequently. Consequently, requirements were elevated to comply with rules related to data management similar to those of EU countries. A series of improvements were made to our electronics systems, while contracts with private and public facilities were reviewed and improved. The infrastructure of our network was effectively functional. By the end of the year, we saw a general increase of cases in our portfolio.
Cases were successfully completed with a higher standard. We felt the trust of our partners when we met with them at ITIC Global in Athens 2022. We are in the process of cooperating with new partners and improving the level of services for old ones by disposing a well-structured network in the region.
The aim of our company is to become a leader in the West Balkans, and format a referring point for new assistance companies that would be interested in cooperation, following the increasing trends of visitors from countries whose volumes were low.
The foundation stone is the expertise of procedures, ways of operating in diversified environments, and the solid methods of resolving evolving issues.