“The pandemic was a foreseeable medical event for which the economy quite simply wasn’t prepared”

Interview with Prof. Thomas Szucs

In an interview, Prof. Thomas Szucs, Chairman of the Board of the Helsana Group, describes the collaboration between the Board of Directors and the Executive Board over the past few months and explains which consequences the coronavirus crisis will have on the evolution of digitalization within the company.

Prof. Thomas Szucs

Prof. Dr. med. Thomas D. Szucs, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Helsana

Professor Szucs, when did you first realize that the coronavirus would be a problem of global dimensions?

I was certain that something peculiar was going on in China at the start of the year, right after the country’s initial report to the WHO. I visit China quite frequently and have been studying influenza for more than 30 years. For me, it’s only ever been a matter of time until a pandemic arrives. What surprised me, though, is that it was a different type of virus than I had expected, namely the coronavirus. And I never dreamed that I’d witness a pandemic hitting the world with such brute force.

How did collaboration between you and your senior management team evolve over the past few months?

Collaboration between the Board of Directors and the Executive Board worked extremely well. At the height of the lockdown, we were discussing the situation frequently during telephone and video conferences – occasionally also attended by external specialists from the realms of research, medicine and IT, each of which gave us a new perspective on the latest developments. Everything at Helsana was coordinated by our task force, which, looking back, did a fantastic job and collaborated with IT and Procurement Management to keep operations up and running during the pandemic. The Board of Directors had its first in-person meeting on 13 May – subject to an elaborate set of safety precautions. What we wanted was to point the way and quickly find a path back to the new normal.

Did the pandemic pass the litmus test for the digitalization of our economy?

That the pandemic would give the digitalization trend a major boost was to be expected and I suppose this was a first real test of our agility. In this respect, the senior management team of the Helsana Group did an extraordinary job. The fact that nearly 3,000 employees were working at home during some phases of the lockdown went practically unnoticed by clients – apart from the closed doors of our sales offices and general agencies. Our availability during the lockdown was a little over 95% on average. That’s a sensational result. In the future, work is going to be more digitized and involve less travel.

To what extent is the predominant sense of economic and social unease already becoming apparent in your day-to-day business?

The pandemic was a foreseeable medical event for which the economy quite simply wasn’t prepared. The approach to pandemic planning and safety precautions has always been half-hearted, both within businesses and in the public healthcare sector. Not to mention the way the importance of flu vaccination rates has been downplayed. At Helsana, we’ve been able to cushion the shock of the pandemic quite well and come to terms with this new world pretty swiftly. We’re aiming to get our operations back to normal by the time summer vacation is officially over.

Which lessons should the economy and society learn from the coronavirus crisis?

We have to keep an eye on the risks and have explicit precautionary measures at the ready just in case. The pandemic is likely to pose significant challenges to the personal, non-transferable duties and responsibilities of board members in nearly every company. As board members, we’re responsible for making sure that we perform our core tasks systematically, especially with respect to supervision and risk management. We have to ensure that the executive management looks ahead, assesses short- and long-term risks and opportunities, takes suitable steps to guarantee business continuity and activate contingency plans, and communicates the right information at the right time. Equally important is the fact that society has developed a much greater awareness of hygiene, as demonstrated by reactions to recent developments in the meat processing industry. Hopefully, this awareness will also translate to a decline in the number of infections commonly seen at hospitals.

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