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Loek Winter Loek Winter

One-eyed man in the land of the blind

In Society
Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Thursday, 05 February 2015 09:09

From his humble beginnings as a medical student and later a radiologist, Loek Winter is now the largest private healthcare operator in the Netherlands. “My goal is to be to healthcare what Joop van den Ende is to the Dutch media.” He sowed the seeds of his career at the fledgling Rijksuniversiteit Limburg, the predecessor of Maastricht University (UM).


Winter was among the earliest cohorts of medical students at the newly established Rijksuniversiteit. “We were seen as dirt on the street”, he says. “There was a lot of scepticism in the traditional medical world. People like my father, a GP, felt that we were getting a very average education. Medically speaking, there were indeed gaps in the early curriculum. But it was pioneering. The people were open minded and keen for something new. I felt at home there.”

In particular, the principles of the new university appealed to him: its small-scale working method and Problem-Based Learning. “These principles formed the core of the way I still think and act today. My businesses revolve around providing care focused on the patient.” In his view, UM was far ahead of its time. “Organising work in self-managing and developing teams is a very modern and future-proof approach, which you now see all over the business world.” He continues: “My study years were extremely formative. The seed was sown then for my later career.”

Uncomplicated time
Winter’s affinity with healthcare runs deep: his father was a GP in Voerendaal and his mother ran the pharmacy. There was no question that he would study medicine. His parents didn’t pressure him; rather, the ambition was spurred along by his circle of friends. Radiology seemed exciting: “It’s a fascinating subject, full of innovations at the interface of technology and healthcare.”

Student life in Maastricht was nice, but minimal. “These days it’s hard to believe there were only 100 students. But Maastricht is of course a fun city, so I didn’t always get around to studying. I’d spend an hour in the pub every day. It was very much a free and uncomplicated time.”

Ten years later he returned to the classroom in Maastricht, this time for a master’s in Policy and Management at the Health Sciences faculty. “I wanted to increase my network and gain more insight into the workings of the healthcare system.”

Limburg attitude
Winter started working life in 1991, as a radiologist at Amsterdam’s Onze Lieve Vrouwe Gasthuis. He quickly became annoyed with hospital work: the inefficiency, the money that was thrown away, the waiting lists that never grew any shorter. Exasperated, he moved into healthcare entrepreneurship, founding the Amsterdam Diagnostic Centre in the 1990s. The centre proved to be a success, the first in a long line of medical centres that Winter would go on to establish or take over. By no means does he consider this a turnaround in his career: “Entrepreneurship is my second nature. I’ve always wanted to build new things and improve old things. It gives me a kick to see these medical centres full. It shows you’ve created something that’s in demand, that’s up and running. That’s the fun of it.”

He does wonder occasionally whether he made the right career choice. Healthcare is not exactly an easy sector to do business in. “Being a doctor and an entrepreneur is like being a one-eyed man in the land of the blind.” Does he encounter resistance? “I wholesale in resistance”, he jokes. “Things never go of their own accord; that’s something you get tired of.” Essential in his line of work are persistence and obstinacy. “Not typically Limburg traits, I know. In the south, consensus is in the drinking water: Limburgers are pleasers. I’ve had to leave that modesty behind. That said, a Limburg attitude also gives me advantages. I’m good at dealing with people and recognising the difference between what people say and what they actually do.”

Private entrepreneurship
Winter has always remained a sort of doctor; it’s just that healthcare itself is his patient. And the patient is not exactly flourishing. “Healthcare is seriously ill. It’s a client-unfriendly, heavily institutionalised sector that revolves around doctors far too much and patients far too little. Care institutions are bureaucratic and inaccessible behemoths. I want to bring an end to inefficiency, self-interest and unproductiveness. The traditional hospitals need a kick in the behind. To this end, market forces and private entrepreneurship are indispensable.” He is inspired by Joop van den Ende, the Dutch media tycoon who has brought culture to the general public. Winter wants to do the same with healthcare.

Maastricht University has remained dear to him. Winter is a board member of the Limburg University Fund/SWOL, which supports the expansion of the university. For him, it all goes back to those principles: the pioneering spirit of the early days, and the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of today. “These principles lie at the heart of the continued success of the university. They underpin the latest breakthroughs in education and point to how you can and must nurture the development of people. I’m proud that I was educated here.”

Loek Winter (1959) studied medicine from 1978 to 1984 and Policy and Management of Health Sciences from 1995 to 1999 at Maastricht University. Initially a radiologist, he is now the director of ten diagnostic centres and two hospitals. He also manages a chain of healthcare institutions. Winter was professor of Healthcare Entrepreneurship at Nyenrode Business University from 2011 to 2014.

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