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Interview with Dennis Diokno FirstMed's Founding Partner and CEO - Part 1

FirstMed in Budapest turned 22 this year. We caught up with our company’s founder and asked him about FirstMed and how it has evolved over its many years.

Can you please give a little background on how you got to Hungary and why you started FirstMed?

During my studies at Kalamazoo College, I developed an interest in business and languages. This led to my studying in Germany for a semester and eventually to pursue a Master of International Management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. My first job after Thunderbird took me all the way from sunny Arizona to a cold winter in Moscow. I worked at the first American-style private clinic in Russia.

After a year in Moscow, I received an opportunity to become the first general manager of the first joint-venture clinic in Beijing. I subsequently worked as an international healthcare consultant assisting American companies in exploring international markets.

My clients were mainly interested in China, but one sent me to Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw to assess the market for private healthcare. This client did not follow through with its plans. I saw a great opportunity for clinic development and formed my own company. I decided on Budapest because at that time it had more favorable market conditions than Warsaw or Prague.

How much has FirstMed changed since it first opened its doors?

Well, for starters, we haven’t always been FirstMed. Our long-time patients know that we started as The American Clinic Kft. We eventually changed our name to FirstMed to reflect our international patient population and diverse staff.

Besides the name change, the clinic has evolved from a small family practice with some gynecology, pediatrics, and orthopedics to become a primary care center and multi-specialty outpatient clinic. On day one, we started with five full-time employees. We now have over one hundred. The original clinic occupied only 400 sqm on half of the fifth floor. Today we lease nearly 2,000 sqm, taking the entire fifth floor, nearly half of the fourth floor, and a large area on the ground floor where we recently opened our new endoscopy center.

When we opened in 1999 we didn’t have a lot of equipment. We didn’t even have an X-ray. Now we have X-ray, mammography, multiple ultrasounds, and other diagnostic equipment.

In the early days, we had limited hours, being open only on the weekdays from 8 am to 6 pm. We’re now open Monday through Friday from 8 am to 8 pm as well as on the weekends. We also launched our extremely popular telemedicine service in March, giving our patients easier access to our doctors.

What makes FirstMed different from other clinics?

In FirstMed’s early years it was very easy to differentiate ourselves as there was no other private clinic like ours. Before we opened, people had to navigate the local healthcare system. For foreigners, this was always difficult. There were language issues as well as knowing how much to pay. In those days the ‘gratuity payment’ was widespread. What we offered was prompt service with full transparency in pricing. We were the first private clinic to offer direct insurance billing. Our main advantage over both public and the few private clinics has always been our emphasis on customer service.

There is no question that state hospitals have outstanding doctors and other healthcare providers. The problem at public facilities and many private facilities is the lack of good customer service that a patient experiences from the initial phone call to checking in to seeing the doctor to paying.

Now, 22 years later, private healthcare in Hungary has is rapidly developing. Other private clinics compete with us. In competing with us and each other these clinics have raised patients' expectations and forced the market to improve standards. It’s not enough to have a beautiful waiting area and a wide range of services. Patients are looking for clinics that deliver excellent care. In their search for healthcare providers, they do their research, looking at online reviews especially those on Google. We’re proud of our high rating, but even more so of the glowing comments that our patients leave. We also recognize that we’re not perfect. If we were perfect we would have a 5.0 rating instead of 4.6. When we get a low rating or bad review we do our best to address the complaint. We have a dedicated manager who is responsible for resolving customer service issues.

Another important difference is the FirstMed team. We are able to deliver consistent, high-level care because a large number of our staff has been with us for many years. At our 20-year anniversary celebration, I noted,

“We currently have 13 employees who started with us in our first year, 14 who have been with us fifteen or more years, 10 with ten or more years, and 39 who have been with us five or more years. That's 76 employees who have been with us for five or more years!”

With such low turnover in employees, we are able to generate a consistent work environment. Our team knows how to work well with each other to give our patients quality medical care.

Last year, we opened our endoscopy center where we now offer gastroscopy and colonoscopy procedures. Over the years we had been referring patients to partner centers for these procedures. Now we are able to serve them where them in the familiar environment of FirstMed.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, we had been developing a telemedicine program to give our patients a more convenient way to access our medical professionals in some cases. When the government enacted restrictions to fight the spread of COVID we could only see urgent cases in the clinic. We expedited the development of our telemedicine program and launched it within days of the first COVID restrictions.

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