Olympic Polyclinics – the Future of Healthcare?

The first Olympic Village was built in Los Angeles In 1932. To help ensure the health and safety of athletes, a small hospital was built in the Village and provided care free of charge to the athletes.

Since 1932, every Olympic Village has featured a dedicated 24-hour healthcare facility – now called the Olympic Polyclinic – that provides free healthcare to anyone involved with the Olympics. The Polyclinic at this year’s Games in Rio de Janeiro is once again a marvel of modern medicine, much like the one at 2012’s London Games represented the pinnacle of medicine four years ago.

At 3,500 sq ft, the Rio Polyclinic is the largest ever constructed. It features a state-of-the-art equipment including: MRI scanners, x-ray machines and even cryotherapy pools (for low temperature treatments). All the equipment and the EHR that holds it all together is donated by Olympic sponsors. The staff are all volunteers.

I find the Polyclinics fascinating and the more I read about them, the more I am convinced they are a providing us a glimpse into the future of healthcare.

Health-Aware Patients

The doctors and nurses at the Polyclinics see some of the most health-aware patients on the planet. Olympic athletes track everything from their diet to their sleep patterns to resting heart rates. When they show up at the Polyclinic they often have a very good idea of what is wrong and come armed with lots of baseline health data. The Polyclinic staff expect this and collaborate with their patients when they walk in the door.

As more and more people track their fitness through apps and trackers, we too are becoming more and more health-aware as patients. In the future we will have a lot of digital information about our own health – information that can and should be shared with our care team. Physician practices will have to learn to collaborate as the Polyclinic staff have learned – or they risk alienating potential health-aware patients.

Health-Abstaining Patients

The Olympic Polyclinics also see patients that are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. For many athletes (and support staff) from developing countries, the Polyclinics are the only opportunity they have to receive quality healthcare.

According to a piece in USA Today the MRI suite, x-ray machines and ultrasound machines at the Rio Polyclinic has been running non-stop. In addition, the Polyclinic has provided:

  • 1,000 dental checks
  • 450 dental x-rays
  • 300 specialized mouth guards
  • 1,730 eye exams
  • 1,410 sets of prescription glasses

…and it’s only the mid-point of the Games.

Due to lack of access and high cost, many Olympians are forced to forgo medical care. This is the same phenomenon that is happening in the United States as high deductible plans and increasing healthcare costs are forcing many to abstain from seeking care. Because of this, staff will see more and more patients with higher and higher acuities – something that the Polyclinic staff see often at the Games.

Completely Autonomous

The Polyclinics are self-contained healthcare facilities. They have an onsite lab, a full imaging suite and a full staff of specialists. It takes less than an hour to get blood test results and image readings. Short of major surgeries, the Polyclinics can handle most patient needs without need to refer them to another facility.

This one-stop approach is what patients want. They want to go to a single nearby facility and have access to all the specialists and equipment they need. It would be impractical to build Polyclinics in every rural town, but through the magic of telemedicine, it may one day be possible to access needed specialists without having to drive hundreds of miles.

With the advances in remote testing and telemedicine coupled with patient preference for one-stop shopping I expect to see more multi-specialty, completely autonomous clinics open in the next few years.

Culturally Aware

Being in the middle of Olympic Village, the staff at the Polyclinics have to be very culturally aware. Instead of insisting on a “Western Approach”, doctors and nurses are encouraged to listen to the patient and take into consideration their religion as well as cultural norms.

It will not be long until smart healthcare organizations realize that catering to cultural differences in their communities is a differentiator. The same has happened in the grocery industry with the rise of halal meats and ethnic food aisles. Being culturally aware will attract more patients.

Admittedly, the Polyclinics, like the Olympic Games themselves, exist within their own reality bubble. There is little concern over finances, there is no shortage of clinicians, they have a completely captive audience and they don’t have to care for their patients for more than two weeks.

Despite this, I see the Polyclinics as a barometer of things to come – especially in terms of the types of patients they see. It’s going to be fun to read more stories from the Polyclinic after the Rio Games end. Now back to watching synchronized swimming.

For an insider look at life inside the Polyclinic, I would highly recommend this post from Trisha Greenhalgh who documented her experience at the London Games Polyclinic in 2012.

About the author

Colin Hung

Colin Hung

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

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