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The Care Factor: Franz Harnoncourt

In the face of technological challenges, Franz Harnoncourt, CEO of Austria’s highly respected Kepler University Hospital, refuses to take his eyes off the main stakeholder: the patient.

Born nearly 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece, the philosopher and physician Hippocrates is considered as the father of modern medicine. One of his famed mantras is as follows: “Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.”

Such was his enduring wisdom that this observation rings true with those at the forefront of the profession today – not least Franz Harnoncourt, the CEO of the Kepler University Hospital, the largest hospital operator in the Upper Austria region, and the second-biggest hospital in the country.

“The healthcare industry is one of the most important parts of society,” he says. “When I started, my first motivation was helping people and doing good surgery. And now I think it’s one of the biggest opportunities to make sure that the healthcare system is in the future for all people. Our goal is that everybody gets not what they want, but also what they need.”

“Our goal is that everybody gets not what they want, but also what they need.”

When Harnoncourt muses on his industry, he does so with the underplayed authority of someone who has devoted 37 years to medicine. He practiced as a surgeon at the Elisabethinen Hospital in Linz for the best part of two decades, before moving into a series of management roles – a transition that included a period as Head of Medicine and Nursing at the Malteser Deutschland Group, which is an organization comprising 10 hospitals all over Germany.

A real seen-it, done-it man, then.

“The difference between Germany and Austria is very big; Germany has a market-driven healthcare system, while Austria has public health care with no market interests and possibilities,” he explains.

A Depth of Experience

Harnoncourt returned to Austria five years ago to oversee the organic growth of Kepler University Hospital, an institution established relatively recently in 2014, and which currently houses more than 1,800 beds and 50 specialized departments across two locations. With no shortage of pride, Harnoncourt describes his position as “one of the most exciting challenges in health care”.

“The first achievement for us was making the steps to getting a university and a university hospital,” he recalls. “The second was to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. I came here and six months later the pandemic started.

“We had a real challenge, but I think we did it well, being the most important hospital in the treatment of the very sick and intensive care unit patients.”

“The partnership between Kepler University and Dedalus is characterized by excellent relationships with users and the Upper Austrian Health Holding. This partnership is strengthened by high comfort, loading speed and availability of the picture archiving and communication system, which is particularly appreciated by professionals and management. Dedalus is a leading provider of healthcare and diagnostic software in Europe and around the world.” – Winfried Post, General Manager und Vorsitzender der Geschäftsführung, Dedalus HealthCare DACH


It was during this tumultuous period, when the Austrian healthcare system had more than six million COVID-19 cases on its collective hands, that Harnoncourt’s depth of experience in both practical and management positions paid dividends.

“You need to be clear in your decisions,” he says of his leadership style. “Most people would say I’m cooperative and communicative in my work.

“Communication is especially important in the hospital system, because it’s a personality system. Our main asset is knowledge and the empathy of the people who work with us. Empathy is extremely necessary.”

A Modern Healthcare System

Empathy and a clear willingness to embrace change. This is on a broad technological level – Kepler University Hospital, for instance, recently entered a partnership with leading healthcare and diagnostic software provider Dedalus – as well as with AI.

Quite what Hippocrates and his fellow physicians in Ancient Greece would have made of AI’s role in medicine is up for debate, but notwithstanding his patient-first stance, Harnoncourt is cautiously optimistic about a future where computers and algorithms dictate the pace in his profession.

“Twenty years ago, we thought robotics would be the most important thing. But AI shows us that maybe knowledge, and the extraction of knowledge, is part of the future,” he reflects.

“The most important thing is to decide in which moment you take which technology, which moment you are needed as a person, and which moment you are needed as an expert.”

“Our main asset is knowledge and the empathy of the people who work with us.”

In the modern age, the notion of patient care also extends to looking after their digital health. According to the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity, 42 percent of European hospitals from January 2021 to March 2023 were subject to cyberattacks, with more than half of those incidents involving ransomware.

“One of the things we did in the past five years is to stabilize our digital infrastructure, especially to be prepared for criminal activities,” Harnoncourt reveals. “It’s a big problem. Cybersecurity is one of our main goals, to be sure that the data of our patients is as secure as it can be.”

Unsurprisingly, as someone who has witnessed seismic changes in the medical sector over the past four decades, Harnoncourt also remains acutely aware of his environmental responsibilities as CEO of one of Austria’s most influential hospitals – from prosaic measures (avoiding excess food wastage) to the more sophisticated (reusing anesthetic gases). As a public company, he points out, his institution bears a responsibility for the future.

“Sustainability is like prevention in the healthcare system. It’s not in our interest to solve problems, but to avoid making them,” he points out.

Hippocrates couldn’t have put it better.

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