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Dr. Jorge Garcia: Benchmarking Philippine Healthcare

A young man’s dream of becoming a pilot was set aside to way for his mother’s wish for him to become a doctor. Little did this young man know that this would take him places —further than any pilot could ever reach.

He is Dr. Jorge Garcia, world-renown cardiovascular surgeon. And until today, he has not regretted being that obedient young boy. Despite his success in the United States, not once did he forget to help improve healthcare in the Philippines. And through his tireless efforts, the country has slowly but surely, felt the benefits of his work.

From flying to surgery
Dr. Jorge Garcia dreamt of soaring high up in the skies as a pilot. But growing up in an era when disobeying one’s parents was considered taboo, he found himself following his mother’s wish. They already had a lawyer, an artist, and a pharmacist in the family; his mom wanted a doctor as well.

And so the young Garcia went on to medical school, and later worked at the University of Sto. Tomas Hospital (USTH). As if destiny brought them together, it was in the USTH where Dr. Garcia found his beloved specialty—cardiovascular surgery.

It was Dr. Benjamin Belmonte who inspired Dr. Garcia to take up cardiovascular surgery. Dr. Garcia trained under him at the time when doctors still groped around for proper care among heart surgery patients. “Unfortunately for Dr. Belmonte, the country was not yet ready for heart surgery.

The type of intensive care was still very primitive back then, we didn’t have different laboratory procedures and equipment that can support a heart surgery patient,” laments Dr. Garcia.

It has been 35 years since Dr. Garcia entered the world of cardiovascular surgery. After his training with Dr. Belmonte, he flew to Washington, DC during the Watergate scandal to try his luck in the world of surgery.

A legend in his own right
“Every operation is a challenge, but I enjoy the ones that are really complex and challenging. And I’m telling you, you always get that good feeling every time you know very well that you helped a patient live,” Dr. Garcia exclaims when asked if anything still challenges him in his work.

Now a legend in his field, Dr. Garcia humbly remarks that it is still saving a patient’s life that is his biggest career highlight. He proudly says that he has handled severe cases—patients whom he has had to “pull out of the fire”. However there is one recognition that remains very close to his heart.

In the 1990s, the Washingtonian, a monthly prestigious magazine, did a survey among doctors of different specialties, around the Washington DC area. The question was: “Where will you bring your family or your loved ones if they need a heart operation?” Overwhelmingly, Dr. Garcia garnered the most number of votes, thus making him the top heart surgeon in Washington, DC.

Despite having an established career in the United States, Dr. Garcia has never failed to share his success with his fellow Filipinos. “Here in the Philippines, we have prevented many Filipinos from going abroad to seek medical care, especially in heart surgery,” says Dr. Garcia.

Conceptualization of a dream And this is exactly what Dr. Garcia had in mind when he conceptualized the Asian Hospital and Medical Center. “We saw the quality of the hospitals, I’m talking about 15-20 years ago, the standard of our hospitals were not as good as the standard of hospitals particularly in cardiac care in well-developed countries,” states Dr. Garcia.

Unfortunately, Dr. Garcia’s dream almost got sidetracked by a huge problem. He recalls that the Asian economic crises lead to a series of unfortunate events. Construction got delayed, making their opening delayed by almost 22 months. “So we had to do a lot of negotiations, restructuring and things like that, and get some more investors to provide the needed cash at that time,” says Dr. Garcia.

With that nightmare behind them, Asian Hospital has never been more stable. The hospital is in the process of expansion with a new tower being built behind the main building. Asian Hospital is also now under professional management which has been running the hospital like a well-oiled ship.

Beaming with pride, Dr. Garcia adds that Asian Hospital, along with the other hospitals in the country, is very much at par with the major hospitals in the United States. He says that Asian Hospital set the trend for hospitals providing quality healthcare for Filipinos. “I think overall the beneficiary would be the country, especially when you upgrade the quality of hospital care. You don’t have to leave the country to receive good quality medical care particularly complex procedures like heart surgery and transplantation,” he says.

Bridging quality healthcare to Filipinos
Dr. Garcia’s established name in the States is benefitting the country in two ways. The first is through a training program in which he gets to send doctors to Washington, DC. However, there is one strict condition: that they should return to the country to practice and serve their countrymen.

“That is the basic foundation of my unit here, the heart surgery unit; most of the doctors that were working with me were trained in the hospital where I do heart surgery. So the system is exactly the same, and eventually these doctors and nurses train under the same system that we have in Washington DC,” states Dr. Garcia.

Aside from patterning the system, he says that the hospital he works in participates a lot in the testing of new devices. If the device proves to be of good quality, Dr. Garcia can get it at a cheaper price and then bring it over to the Philippines. “So if you’re a patient here at Asian Hospital and you’re going to have your heart surgery done here, you feel like you will get the same kind of treatment as if I’m operating on you in my hospital in Washington DC, the only difference is that we’re three times cheaper plus our facilities are much nicer than our facilities in the US,” he remarks.

His formula for success
Saying goodbye to his dream of becoming a pilot to fulfill his mother’s wish may have at first seemed regrettable. Fortunately for Dr. Garcia, this paved the way to unexpected success. Being named the top heart surgeon in Washington and building a hospital equipped with high-class facilities, may just be some of Dr. Garcia’s many achievements. Despite all these, he remains humble and still works doubly hard to make healthcare in the Philippines at par, or even better than developed countries, yet much more affordable.

Dr. Garcia also adds that the medical schools in the country are also very good. He says that he is very much impressed with the local doctors and nurses. He says we owe it all to sheer talent. And with major institutions patterning their medical care after the United States, these young physicians are given the opportunity to get adequate training.

And with the onslaught of medical school graduates every year, Dr. Garcia says that success, not just in medicine, needs a combination of luck and passion. Summarizing all of his years in the field, he only has this for aspiring physicians: “So I always tell younger physicians that the way you’re going to achieve that goal is you really have to work hard. Nothing is easy. Sometimes you need to be lucky, too.”

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