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“If all I had to do now was look after patients, I wouldn't be a happy doctor.”

“If all I had to do now was look after patients, I wouldn't be a happy doctor.”

Paediatrician and paediatric nephrologist An Bael was born and raised in Ghent. However, she found love and her job in Antwerp. After a somewhat unusual career to date, she opted for the Management for Hospital Professionals programme at Vlerick. Her goal as head of department was to gain more insight into the complexity of a hospital environment and the organisation of her own department.

From doctor to specialist

Testimonial_An_Bael_ZNA_2019_Kevin_boone_DSC06073“I come from Ghent, where I trained as a paediatrician. At first I had no intention of becoming a paediatric kidney specialist. But you know how things go. Something incredibly exciting happens on your journey and you have to seize the opportunity. I moved to Utrecht for my specialisation. I had three young children at the time, so it was far from an easy choice. A working week could still mean a hundred hours back then. But it was what I really wanted.”

“In the end, I came back to work at AZ Monica, the Middelares Hospital in Antwerp. They had already reserved a place for me. After barely three years, I became head of department there. It was a real baptism of fire for me. After all, I was still only at the beginning of my career. I worked there happily for a total of ten years, seven of them as head of department.”

A career with switchbacks

“Meanwhile, Antwerp University Hospital asked me to start working for them. That was a dilemma, because I was happy where I was. But going back to the university was tempting too. I was writing my doctorate at the time. In the end, I decided to make the switch. And it turned out to be a really good choice, at least when it came to working with patients. But there were no opportunities to participate in management and organisation. Helping to shape policy seemed to be out of the question. There are many doctors for whom working with patients and nothing else is truly a calling. But it doesn’t make me happy if all I am allowed to do is deal with patients. Strategic thinking is important to me. I had had a taste of it, and I missed it.”

“At that point several things came together. The Antwerp Hospital Network (ZNA) was looking for new specialists for the children's department. I started working there in 2011 as a paediatric nephrologist. I didn’t plan to lead the department at the time, but that was soon what happened.”

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A challenge on unstable ground

“To cut a long story short, I was asked internally to put the finances of the children's hospital in order as head of department. There was a huge deficit at the time. I accepted the challenge and immediately immersed myself in the financial data. Within nine months, the deficit had been dealt with. Unbelievable, you might say. Why didn't they make you Minister of Finance right away? But to be honest, it was easier than it looked. A lot of costs were being misallocated without anyone noticing.”

“However, I did have a clear sense that my knowledge of subjects such as hospital management and financing was too limited at that point. My experience in management was also rather off the cuff. ZNA were offering a leadership programme at the time. That was interesting, but I wanted more so I took a look at Vlerick's range. At first, my diary seemed too busy to fit in that kind of programme. In the end, I decided for myself to block out those dates and do it anyway.”

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A network of like-minded people

“The deeper you go in an organisation, the more you see all the sticking points, difficulties and differences. At the start of the programme with Vlerick, I was really looking for answers: how exactly is hospital financing structured? What about the running of the hospital and all those successive chains? How do you make processes lean? And so on. These were the things I wanted to hear most of all and my expectations have certainly been fulfilled.”

“Another particular thing I learned is that you have to find like-minded people in paediatrics to tackle the sticking points. The great advantage of the Vlerick programme is their network. Partly thanks to the course, I am now a member of many paediatric associations in Flanders and Belgium. It’s quite time-consuming, but probably the only way to really achieve something. I now feel like I really know what I’m talking about in several areas.”

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Guide to the puzzle

“To focus on just one module, the people management section with Karlien Vanderheyden was fantastic. It really helps you to put the pieces of the puzzle together, with very specific applications for your own organisation. An example: 12 assistants work in our department. As the head of department, you need to find a place for them and supervise them. It’s not easy, planning all that. The course gave me a few tools to use.”

Testimonial_An_Bael_ZNA_2019_Kevin_boone_DSC05848The programme has given me a solid foundation. The most theoretical modules were what particularly appealed to me. I still regularly reach for some of the course handbooks. It’s reassuring to know that even CFOs at very large hospitals don’t immediately see certain things clearly. The hospital system remains complex. Or, as a lecturer put it, it's like twenty plumbers all working on something at once, adding pipes here and there.”

“So what is my conclusion after the programme? To be able to offer a more profound contribution in areas other than pure patient care, this kind of training is actually a necessity.

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