From the time he was a child Mohamed El Sahili always knew he wanted to be a doctor. But he had no idea just how deeply this decision would impact his life. Driven by a humanitarian vision Dr El Sahili is now CEO of Lusaka’s Medland Hospital. Read on for more on his journey.
I recently met Dr Mohamed El Sahili at the family-owned restaurant, The Corner Café*, on a chilly winter afternoon. The Corner Café is known for its stunning modern interior, cosy atmosphere and mouth-watering food, the perfect place for my conversation with the CEO of Medland Hospital.
Dr El Sahili ordered the tenderloin beef steak with grilled vegetables while I ordered a generously portioned chicken fajita sandwich with a side of fries because comfort food in this weather is everything to me. The first thing I noticed was the doctor’s sense of style. As a CEO of a hospital I was expecting something formal but what I got was a laid-back casual look that was disarming and charming. I also noticed he was carrying Michelle Obama’s biography, Becoming, which made me think that he and I were going to get along just fine.
Dr El Sahili is one of three children and describes his childhood as “a simpler time.” Growing up in Sidon in the South of Lebanon at the time everyone wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Dr El Sahili recalls a birthday gift he received as a child, a book that was health related, that was likely the catalyst for him realising he wanted to go into medicine. He says, “I think I always knew I wanted to be a doctor, I dreamed of being a neurosurgeon.”
While in medical school Dr El Sahili started a medical TV show, which he hosted for eight years. He shares, “It was an opportunity as a doctor to hear the concerns of the general population. For us doctors diabetes is diabetes, but for a patient diabetes becomes ‘How is it going to harm me? Will I face social challenges?’ So, it’s not only about knowing what the disease is and the treatment; people want to discuss their other challenges.” The TV show was a platform to raise general awareness as well as an opportunity for Dr El Sahili to host some of his colleagues in medicine, his professors and public figures who would give insights into what was happening in and around the country and the region.
When it came time to specialise after graduating from medical school Dr El Sahili chose anaesthesiology. Of course, he had his challenges while studying to become a doctor, noting, “When you want to be a doctor and it’s driven by humanitarian thinking or goals you are confronted with the reality that life is not as bright as we think. You will see that being a doctor in real life is not as easy and simple as you imagined. It doesn’t only ask you to be kind and caring. You have to make tough decisions for your patients and their families.”
The decision to move to Zambia was a conscious one. On the verge of beginning a job as an anaesthetist in Geneva, Dr El Sahili left to join the family business SF Group as the CEO here in Zambia. At that time their main project was Fairy Bottling which grew to such a level that it was acquired by Coca-Cola through Coca-Cola Beverages Africa. The company branched out into hospitality by opening The Corner Café. In that sense, the choice of The Corner Café was not just because of the restaurant’s convenient location or great food but also due to the family connection. There was something sentimental about it. Perhaps the feeling is shared among its customers as I noticed several other families dining together during our chat.
In addition to hospitality, SF Group also expanded into real estate and health services which, is how Medland Hospital came to be. It was only logical that Dr El Sahili head Medland Health Services Zambia. Medland Hospital became a reality in 2019 because SF Group wanted to invest in the health care system and fill in some of the gaps in the region’s healthcare sector. The original idea for the project was to open a diagnostic centre. However, the limitations of that became apparent. Why only be able to diagnose but not provide access to proper treatment? Medland Hospital exists not to compete with any other institution but to complete what is already existing in the health care system.
When describing his leadership style, the doctor says he is not an easy person because he is quick, doesn’t believe in excuses and is assertive when it comes to implementing decisions. He has a tendency to be picky which can be perceived as micromanaging. However, he is a team player. He shares, “I am a caring colleague. I don’t believe I have employees, I have colleagues. Of course, there is a hierarchy in departments and titles which are all key drivers for good governance. I want to work with people who are able to communicate their challenges in the workplace so that we can find solutions.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every sector but as Dr El Sahili shares, Medland set up a COVID-19 response committee well before the outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. They immediately moved into putting together an anticipated list of challenges; looking closely at the areas of supply chain, human resources and other details which would affect the overall day to day running of the hospital.
COVID-19 has seen the doctor’s self-described micromanaging style come into play in terms of monitoring the supply chain, staffing and understanding what the priorities are. One of the lessons he has learned thanks to the pandemic is not to fall into the trap of panic because it doesn’t help the team. Managing stress and being able to walk away and come back to reengage with a problem is a better approach. Dr El Sahili encourages his team to manage their stress and take care of their mental health whether that’s through yoga, meditation and any other method that will help them get through the current stress of the pandemic.
As CEO of SF Group and Medland Dr El Sahili believes strongly in partnerships and teamwork, Medland have partnered with private and public sectors within the region and outside. The School of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins University has partnered with Medland to implement a programme to support people with mental health issues. Other partnerships are with oncology research institutions to provide updated protocols when it comes to chemotherapy.
As the conversation winds down we talk about Dr El Sahili’s unconventional style of doing business by tapping into creativity, from engaging illustrators to create messaging around the current pandemic to distribute to children to working with local crafts people on beaded bracelets that say “Be safe.” Medland Hospital hosted their first Pink Village last year in October as part of their breast cancer awareness programme, it involved 30 days of activities such as cooking and painting classes and more. The goal was raising awareness through partnerships and creativity.
“I have never strayed away from my vision. It is what I call the triple W vision; “It is related to women’s empowerment, waste and water management, wellness and health. I always try to look at those three elements whenever I am making decisions. 853 because when I put together a plan for example the October Pink Village, I am looking at it over a period of time…it’s over three years, five years and eight years. Three years to see the short-term feedback, five years to deal with the challenges in order to continue the project and eight years to declare it sustainable. In business you can set whatever vision you want, but set a vision so that you can define your mission and values and everything that arises from that.”
At the end of our conversation I mention the book he is carrying, Michelle Obama’s Becoming. He tells me it’s a gift…for me. He explains as he hands me the book, “During these times we need to rely on voices of people like Michelle Obama who remind us that our goals are not dreams. We can achieve them. It’s not easy and there may be challenges but they are achievable.”
*The Corner Café is a family-owned casual dining restaurant and bakery that serves a wide range of international cuisine. It is known not just for its food but also its beautiful, modern design. Established in 2018 and offering great value for money, it is undoubtedly one of Zambia’s prime dining locations.