Improving Healthcare In The Philippines

Dr. Edgardo “Gary” R. Cortez President and CEO of St. Luke’s Medical Center

Executives who understand the complexities of exceeding the highest job standards are more likely to set appropriate goals and create superb work environments. Take for example Dr. Edgardo “Gary” Cortez, a surgical oncologist who is also the president and CEO of St. Luke’s Medical Center, now one of the country’s leading and most respected and recognized healthcare institutions in the Philippines.

In his 31 years of practice, he has witnessed the tragic plight of the patients afflicted with this terrible disease. He has also shared in their joy after having a successful cancer surgery. As a physician, Dr. Cortez also understands the sort of ideal working conditions under which his fellow workers may be able to function effectively and provide their patients the best care.

This is why, when he was given the chance to run the affairs of St. Luke’s in 2012, he immediately set into motion plans to promote people empowerment, improve the delivery of state-of-the-art healthcare that patients deserve, and how to turn the hospital into an internationally recognized academic medical center.

Dr. Cortez also saw this new assignment as his unique chance to prepare St. Luke’s to become an instrument to contribute new knowledge through medical research, and to train new breed of specialists in various fields of medicine.

In accepting his new assignment five years ago, Dr. Cortez realized he was about to bring onto the same page two different mindsets—as a doctor and as a business leader—and be able to use these two to deliver the level of quality that all stakeholders strive for.

First Love
Right out of medical school Dr. Edgardo “Gary” Cortez fell in love with hospitals. Becoming a consultant in General Surgery at the University of the East Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Medical Center (UERM) and later, as he finish his postgraduate training in Cancer Surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City in 1988, Dr. Cortez already knew that hospital work was his calling.

He loved the long walks down the halls, caring for patients from room to room, comforting some with words and saving others with his newly acquired medical skills.

He regarded being a cancer specialist “a great achievement of his medical career.”

Back in high school, he fondly recalled how he was delighted with the allure of healthcare, and eventually, found himself falling in love with it. “Even in high school when something happens in the house, [if] someone gets a wound, I have this medical encyclopedia and do the remedy. I [even] operated on animals. I was quite inquisitive at that time,” Cortez recalls of his younger self.

Hailing from a middle class family, he pursued his passion for healthcare and took his pre-med course at the University of the Philippines Diliman, the country’s premier state university.

It was during this time when Dr. Cortez contemplated shifting to another course: that of running a business organization—an interest that was piqued when, as a university undergraduate, he was exposed to a wide array of experiences and ideas.

“At that time, there was a point that I wanted to go into business. I wanted to take up Masters of Business Administration. And so my dad scolded me: ‘I will give you two hours to decide if you want to go to medicine or not’,” he shared and then added, “Eventually, I decided to go to medicine. Although, deep in my mind all throughout the years, I said okay, I’ll go to medicine but maybe I’ll end my career in the corporate world, so that stuck with me but I did not know how to realize it.’”

Putting his other dream on hold, he quickly rose up the medical career ladder, becoming the youngest department head (Surgery), at age 40, of a university hospital.

“Normally people (in this position) would be 55 or 60 so my challenge was, how do I make all my people follow me despite my relatively young age?” he said.

His organizational skills soon became apparent after meeting his staff who incidentally, were his former teachers.

“I said, those of you who share my vision and are willing to cooperate, I welcome you. For those who are still unsure of what I think is right, I can sit down with you and convince you, and then you help me. But for those who are against about what I think is right after sitting down, then please do not obstruct. Let me do my thing together with all the rest and judge me in the end. That’s been my kind of thinking. Fortunately, they followed,” Cortez said.

The same business acumen led him to lead several professional national organizations: becoming president of the Philippine College of Surgeons, Surgical Oncology Society of the Philippines, Philippine Academy for Head and Neck Surgery, Philippine Association of Training Officers in Surgery and chairman of the Philippine Board of Surgery.

Dr. Cortez was also the editor-in-chief of the Philippine Journal of Surgical Specialties.

These were some of the things that he brought to the table when he was elected medical director at the University of the East-Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Medical Center, which he served for six years.

Journey With St. Luke’s Medical Center
After 25 years of teaching surgery at UERM Memorial Medical Center that taught him the value of education, training, research—he has published about 80 papers; attended business courses at the Asian Institute of Management, the Advanced Executive Education Program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University; spent four years at St. Luke’s as VP for Medical Affairs and Medical Director, it was time for Dr. Cortez to take his career to the next level.

“They interviewed me for a Chief Operations Officer (COO) position. And I had an interview with each member of the Board only to find out  that I have to go again on the second round and the questions were different,” he shared.

He recalled that the chairman at that time informed him that their minds changed.

What surprised him was the next announcement: “We want you to be the President.”

In June 2012, Dr. Cortez became the first doctor to be named president and CEO of St. Luke’s. It was now his turn to lead the charge in making sure that St. Luke’s hospitals in Quezon City and Global City continue to provide excellent healthcare for Filipinos.

Interestingly, Dr. Cortez is still able to selectively perform complex surgeries before or after office hours alongside his administrative duties.

Becoming A World-Class Healthcare Facility For Global Filipinos
While partnering with the best doctors in the country, investing in state-of-the-art medical equipment and infrastructure facilities of international standard, and ensuring it receives and maintains the most prestigious international healthcare accreditations, Dr. Cortez also saw the importance of working with Mayo Clinic, a worldwide leader in health care.

He saw the value of collaboration that would allow St. Luke’s to access the latest Mayo Clinic knowledge and promote doctor collaboration that complements local expertise. Through such shared resources, Dr. Cortez saw the benefit of getting answers to complex medical questions while allowing St. Luke’s patients to stay close to home.

“Back in October 2015, a representative of Mayo Clinic came and invited St. Luke’s to be a member of the Mayo Clinic Care Network. Launched in 2011, the Mayo Clinic Care Network currently has 44 affiliated hospitals mostly in the continental United States. The Philippines, through St. Luke’s, is one of the few medical institutions outside the US to have collaborated with Mayo Clinic.”

“After a long process, several stages, there came the approval sometime in September 2016 and so we became the 34th member of the Mayo Clinic, only the second in Southeast Asia. It’s a partnership where we can access their resources, for instance, second opinion, for patients with difficult cases.”

“We get access to any health care questions that we may have, even hospital design, they will share with us. We have access to patient education materials. All these are at no expense to our patients. Even the second opinion is free. Otherwise, they’re going to spend about $5,000 (about P254,000) just to consult via internet,” Cortez proudly explained.

Quality Yet Affordable Healthcare
Comparatively, healthcare services in the Philippines cost less than those in the US and other Western countries. However, it is more important to note that on top of the relatively cheaper cost, the country has hospitals such as St. Luke’s that provide medical
care regarded as at par with or even more exceptional than a number of these hospitals located abroad.

Furthermore, St. Luke’s prides itself with excellent specialists who were trained in world-renowned medical institutions, and have access to the most modern facilities and equipment to complement their skills and knowledge.

For Dr. Cortez, it is important to let people know that the Philippines has a hospital that can really compete with some of the best medical institutions in the world.

“What we do is to benchmark all our results with the best figures in the world and there were a number of times when we’re even better,” Cortez said.

Medical Tourism
“The expertise, the cutting-edge technology that St. Luke’s has, and the caring hands are the key drivers to our success in medical tourism,” he said.

With the Philippines ranked among the top medical tourism destinations in the world, Dr. Cortez has high hopes that the country will eventually make it as the topmost medical destination in providing accessible healthcare for tourists and locals, including
Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), Filipino-Americans, and balikbayans.

The ranking, that placed the Philippines 5th in 2015 and 19th in 2016, is annually compiled by the International Healthcare Research Center and the Medical Tourism Association (MTA), a global non-profit association for medical tourism and international patient industry which represents healthcare providers, governments, insurance companies, employers and other buyers of healthcare.

“We have packages for medical tourists as well as packages for local patients. It’s a menu type, which is easy to understand for foreign patients so that they will never come to us without having an idea how much their needed services will cost,” Cortez shared.

As for St. Luke’s, they benchmark their services with the strict standards of the aviation and hotel industry.

“As a premier healthcare provider, we have learned several lessons from the airline industry such as checklists, training, crew resource management, and organizational culture. Like us, the airline industry also takes care of the lives of people. Moreover, to increase patient satisfaction, we have also turned to the techniques used in the hospitality industry to keep our patients happy. Indeed, improving the experience at all levels of care can improve patient satisfaction scores and eventually promote loyalty. Moreover, we have also taken advantage of the fact that Filipino medical professionals are renowned across the world for their skills and brand of care,” Cortez explained.

Value For Money
For Dr. Cortez, the battle cry should be “value for money.” He contends that the fees the hospital charges is always reasonable—but not too low considering St. Luke’s invests in people and in technology. “We’re the only hospital who sends doctors abroad to train at our own expense.”

He added: “Part of the expenses of St. Luke’s goes to the scholars—60 percent of our medical students are scholars. We also spend about 10 percent of our net income for research. We also spend about P400 million a year for social service,” he related.

Cortez also emphasized that St. Luke’s is a non-profit organization, which means whatever profit it makes goes back to the improvement of the hospital and the services it renders to patients.

Growing And Expanding
Cortez shared St. Luke’s is slowly transforming itself in Quezon City—planning is ongoing for a first class, 2.7-hectare academic medical center complex located at the back of the
current 60-year-old building, which incidentally will be knocked down once everything is completed at the new site.

While the new facility is taking shape in Quezon City, St. Luke’s will also begin the construction of its third hospital facility located in the Azuela Cove, Lanang in Davao City.

Cortez reveals, “We’re in the planning stage at the moment (design of the building). Afterward, it will take about two years for the construction. This new hospital, St. Luke’s first outside Metro Manila, is expected to generate close to 2,000 new jobs in the Davao and Mindanao area.”

Old Notion
While St. Luke’s is regarded as among the top hospitals in the country, a lot of people, however, view it as an expensive one. However, Dr. Cortez was quick to clarify that this is no longer true. “This is already an old notion.”

He related that in its effort to help Filipinos afford quality health care, St. Luke’s already adjusted its prices, allowing more patients to be treated without sacrificing care quality.

“Well it’s a disadvantage (to be viewed as an expensive hospital) because for so long it was true. But now it’s no longer the case because when I took the helm, I right away rationalized the pricing. We reviewed everything and found we need to adjust,” Cortez shared.

As an example, Dr. Cortez recalled that a few years back, the Philippines only has two PET/CT (positron emission tomography/computed tomography) scans and they were all
located at St. Luke’s hospitals—one in Global City and another in Quezon City. While this means St. Luke’s could set any price that it wants, the hospital decided on a price level that is comparatively lower than its counterparts in Asia.

Dr. Cortez’ move to reduce the prices even without any competitor at that time was a strategy to keep people needing a PET/CT scan from going abroad. He reckoned that it was quite a challenge to convince people that St. Luke’s was not expensive.

“Filipinos have the right to expect safe, effective, compassionate, high-quality care. As a leading hospital in the Philippines, we play a vital role in making sure that care services meet those expectations. Our job is to constantly improve the standards of health care in the country and become a regional ‘destination’ hospital,” Cortez said with a smile.

Spotlighting the growth, development, and progression of the Philippines since 2009. Balikbayan Magazine is a publication of the Asian Journal Media Group.