ITIC | International Travel & Health Insurance Conferences

Meet the ITIC Global committee: Natalya Butakova, AP Companies

As we finalise preparations for the upcoming ITIC Global conference in Madrid, we have been catching up with the ITIC Global committee, and are pleased to share their views on the return of international travel ahead of the conference. We recently spoke with ITIC committee member Natalya Butakova, Business Development Manager of AP Companies Global Solutions, about her experiences in Spain during the global shutdown, the importance of face-to-face networking in relationship building and the international medical assistance market.

You’ve been in Spain during the Covid global shutdown, so how has it been for you there, unable to get home and see your extended family?

We actually relocated to Spain for permanent residence just before the pandemic was declared and of course spent a few months in strict quarantine lockdown there. It was a bit scary initially, as we were new to the country, new to the circumstances, and unsure about the future etc. The big bonus is that we have a little backyard where we could still go outside and spend some time in the fresh air, unlike millions of people who were tied to the apartments with no possibility of getting out. As you know, Spain was badly hit by the virus especially in 2020, so very strict measures with masks and closures of the public spaces were implemented for a long time, which helped us to feel more safe and secure, and in some ways, protected from the virus. Interestingly, people were very compliant and followed the rules even without any special supervision. Being away from extended family and not being able to see them, even for a vacation, was a challenge, but I think in the past year families preferred not to meet even if they lived in the same city. Grandparents were not visited so as not to infect them by chance as well. I think realising that the whole world (in one way or another) is in the same circumstances helped us to survive over those challenging months.

Medical assistance for international crewmembers onboard cruise and container ships has been incredibly challenging to manage; what are the most typical problems you faced in this regard, and how did you overcome them?

Indeed, providing medical care for crewmembers has always been challenging due to many reasons – remote locations, limited access to medical facilities, limited medical services available onboard (especially if we talk about industrial shipping), and Covid-19 has made it rather more challenging. We have faced the situation that some emergency cases could not be dealt with in a timely manner because countries refused to accept patients from the ship to their territory. Even if the primary complaints were not related to Covid in any way (such as appendicitis cases, or cardiac cases, for example), countries would still refuse the patient just to avoid unnecessary potential Covid-related cases. This was all very sad and, on some occasions, posed a big risk to the patient’s health and wellbeing. On such occasions, patients needed to be evacuated to countries that would agree to accept them by helicopter air ambulance from the ship. Alternatively, ships needed to make significant deviations in their routes to disembark the patient in the nearest port accepting the patient from the ship. Every case was unique, and no universal solution could be applicable for all, as Covid restrictions were changed too often, sometimes on a daily basis, and we needed to make multiple contacts with port agents and state health authorities to co-ordinate every such case.

 Are you used to virtual meetings now, or do you miss doing business face-to-face? How important are international conferences to your business?

Well, I would say that virtual meetings are better than nothing, but those will never be able to replace personal interaction. And it’s not only about the level of attention from participants during virtual meetings, it’s more about human interactions, the impressions about the person you are meeting, some ‘gut feeling’ if you like, which can only be formed during on a face-to-face meeting in my opinion. Business relationships are built on business needs, rational, and economic decisions, but the success of those relationships in many ways depends on the human factor, and on personal interaction. This is very hard to achieve if you never met a person before.

We at AP have been really missing international conferences over the past year and a half. ITIC online last year was very successful in our opinion because it’s a close community and we meet people we already know, or have met face to face at some points in the past, so it was even fun to have it virtual for one year. But other conferences – where there are a lot of people we’ve never met before – it has not always been easy to catch the attention of the participant for long. You never know if the person is still online or just listening to the session as a background and keep working on his/her normal business day. We have tried a number of online conferences with different level of technical capabilities, but the benefits we could derive were a fraction of those we get from live conferences. Hopefully, we can get back to live ones sooner rather than later, although those might be smaller in size from now on considering new realities.

What has the international medical assistance industry learned during this last 18 months that it can take forward to improve its services to travellers?

It’s interesting, but over the past 18 months there were very few opportunities to learn practical improvements for travellers, simply because travel was restricted and number of travellers dropped dramatically. We have of course been considering the theoretical impact of Covid on travel seasons and behaviors etc. We AP have rather been busy catching up with the needs of our expats who were locked in foreign countries during the pandemic. For example, a number of medical facilities were closed for planned services and only accepting Covid patients. At the same time, people still needed reliable medical facilities to manage their chronic conditions and cancer treatments, or simply needed their prescription refilled. Hence, we needed to expand our network in a number of locations, simultaneously opting for smaller private facilities that were able to meet the demand of our patients. Telemed consultations became very popular, but we have built it the other way – we were able to accommodate those with the local doctors in a patient’s local language and with the ability to issue local prescriptions. This approach has been successfully implemented for the travellers we service as well, and has helped to avoid some expensive visits to emergency rooms.

Natalya will be sharing her insights at ITIC Global on Wednesday 3 November 2021 as panellist discussing Cost Containment challenges and solutions.

Natalya Butakova – Business Development Manager of AP Companies Global Solutions

Natalya Butakova is Business Development Manager of AP Companies Global Solutions, the international leading health care management, cost containment and emergency medical assistance company.

AP Companies has the largest direct medical provider network in185 countries. AP’s specialist Cost Containment team consistently achieves significant savings and carefully controls expenditures of AP’s Clients.

Natalya has been with AP Companies since 2005, having previously worked in private hospitals as a specialist working with international insurance and maritime companies.

ITIC Global Madrid 2021

ITIC Global is an annual gathering of the travel and health insurance community. It’s where you can connect with partners and colleagues, hear from insightful speakers and join discussions that shape the future of our industry. ITIC Global 2021 is taking place in Madrid, Spain 31 October – 4 November, and marks our return to face-to-face business networking after an 18-month hiatus.

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