San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Liberia Hospital is ‘dream come true’

From the print edition

By Andrés Benavente | Special to The Tico Times

LIBERIA, Guanacaste – Walbin Sánchez is an unusual professional. An accomplished medical specialist who speaks four languages and has lived in several countries studying and practicing medicine, the 45-year-old Heredia native has a vision for improving access to affordable private health care in Liberia, capital of northwestern Guanacaste province.

In 2006, Sánchez, who worked as a doctor in the Social Security System in Liberia, joined partners in opening the San Rafael Arcángel Medical Center, a modest yet ambitious clinic. His dream was to create a private health care facility for Guanacastecos of all income-levels.

Demand for services led to a second-phase expansion of the clinic in 2008, and today, the clinic employs 26 people and provides service to almost 4,000 patients a month. To help meet growing health care needs in the area, a modern hospital currently is under construction, and Sánchez says the $5 million project – expected to be finished in a few months – will help significantly improve private health care coverage in the heart of Liberia.

The Tico Times spoke with Sánchez about his vision for medical coverage in Guanacaste. Excerpts follow:

TT: The combination of doctor and businessman isn’t something encountered every day. What gave you the entrepreneurial bug?

WS: I think it’s something that comes from my family.

My father, in spite of his humble background as a campesino, was always an entrepreneur. That’s how he was able to raise nine kids, and thanks to his example, life has been good to all of his children.

He taught us that a good business isn’t built on a model where one person profits by taking something away from another, but rather by creating a situation where everyone involved benefits through long-term relationships. …Another thing that has helped is having lived in various diverse countries.

I’ve learned socialized health care models in Russia, Spain, the Ukraine and Switzerland, market-based models like the United States, and mixed models. I think that gives me a competitive advantage as a doctor and entrepreneur. Finally, a key to success also was [Costa Rica’s] INCAE Business School, one of the best business schools in Latin America. …

In the field of medicine, what has been your formula for success?

Our concept has always been to provide comprehensive attention and integrated services, with everything in one place. Instead of offering only examinations and writing prescriptions, we wanted to have laboratories, pharmacies and other key services that patients need, and people appreciate that.

With the new hospital, we hope to come full circle by providing what was missing: surgeries and outpatient procedures.

 …I’m a surgeon, and today San Rafael has 13 surgeons anxiously awaiting quality operating facilities. Through surgery, we can resolve problems definitively and give well-rounded solutions to our patients without the need to send them from one place to another in order to heal them.

Coming soon is a very modern hospital with high-tech equipment, some of which isn’t even in any other hospital in Costa Rica yet.

How will this hospital serve the community?

For me, medicine has a social role that is fundamental, and because of that, we hope to be able to address every need that’s asked of us.

Sadly, the Caja [Costa Rican Social Security System] is going through a difficult moment. Today, private medicine should understand that there are many low- and middle-income people who urgently need a private specialist, because the public system sometimes gives them appointments two years later. …

There will be intermediary and intensive care units, two operating rooms, recovery rooms, and we are drawing plans and forming alliances for training with surrounding hotels so that patients who don’t live in the area can recover comfortably and safely, supervised by our doctors and nurses.

Medical, dental and aesthetic tourism is also a field we will enter, but in the short term, the most fundamental element for us is that residents will see San Rafael as a hospital for Guanacastecos.

Foreigners and Costa Ricans complain about the difficulties in starting a business here. What has your experience been?

Without question it’s not easy. In terms of bureaucracy and time, it’s very complicated and unpleasant, but you have to be persistent and insistent. You have to do things the correct way, comply with requirements and avoid temptations. …

As an example, six years ago on this piece of land there wasn’t anything; it was just an empty lot. Today, in this space, many people have jobs and we help heal more than 3,500 patients each month. What’s coming isn’t just a bigger building; there will be new solutions for people. …

Do you have advice for people who want to start a business or invest in Guanacaste?

Due to particularities of the provincial culture, the Guanasteco is cautious, and at the beginning people might not accept you. But once they do, they become like a sibling and will help you along.

[In Guanacaste], you can’t come here to impose things on the people. You have to involve the community in projects, look for alliances, play fairly and express your ideas without arrogance. …

We worked hand-in-hand with the people from here, and we’ve grown together as a community.

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