Interview with Dr Jasmina Knežević, the president of the Board of Directors, the founder and the director of Bel Medic

From an initially small office, Bel Medic has developed into the first private hospital in Serbia, accredited according to the highest European quality standards. What was the greatest challenge in those 23 years for your personally, and what for the development of Bel Medic?

When we talk about Bel Medic, we should place its beginnings in the general context of those times. I was a physician employed in the state institution, coming from a traditional family of physicians who have always been focused on their profession, on building their reputation. Nineties were hard for everyone, and particularly for people in science. War and poverty were stressful. My husband and I were in a dilemma if we should leave the country or not. We knew a couple who were both engineers, who started selling flowers at green market. They organized a team, started a firm, and that was the beginning of the now famous Garden Centar. I realized that companies and firms were being started and led by people who had money, but apart from many war profiteers, there were also some common people who were hard-working and entrepreneurial, and who also founded small firms. They have inspired hope in me that, in spite of hard times, it still is possible to survive here.


Those were turbulent times, people were losing their jobs, and we had to make ends meet. War, poverty, refugees, we were surrounded by unfavourable circumstances. Still, if one had the energy, one could find room to create something. That was our start. We did not opt for my husband’s line of work, he is a film director, since we realized that there was little room for a production house. We saw an ad in newspapers in which dentists were searching for physicians to share an apartment. We replied, and soon we shared a waiting room - the dentists had one room and we the other.

Another vital factor is that I am entrepreneurial by spirit. After graduation, I searched for a job with “Anlave” clinic, where I started working as a paediatrician. I was led not only by simple survival instincts, but by the ambitions to reform, as well. I have never belonged to a political party, but I have always been politically conscious. I wanted to see the change of the system but in terms of economy, I wanted the change in spirit, so it could influence the system in a way to add value and respect to individual endeavours.


While socialism supported egalitarianism, which made it possible for the majority of people to have a decent life, it was oppressive for the people who were above the average. I have always believed in the power of individual, I have always wanted to act outside of general rules. I left my job as the Head of the Department in a state institution because it was suffocating me, preventing me from any radical change, and that was not something I could put up with. I left my job in tears, saying: “I am leaving because in 20 years they will be the same, and I will have made something different.” I said it to myself, not out loud because everyone would have laughed at me. Medicine is traditional and rigid, and if you want to be innovative, you have to do it carefully. I wanted a change on personal but also on a global level. Public healthcare was a given, and as a private medical firm, it was not easy to show people that healthcare does not have to be for free.


You have made Bel Medic the European champion in the category “client service”, you have introduced the method of induced sputum analysis in asthma diagnosis, American Chamber of Commerce in Serbia pronounced you “Woman Leader in Change“ in 2014, and you have received numerus other awards. What is your primary motivation to keep moving forward?

A desire to change, to put my ideas into practice, to move and change the society, to change the perspective. It is very important to do what you like because then you do it with ease, and that is not just a phrase. I have my share of difficult moments, very difficult indeed, there are crises when I ask myself why I need all this, but what I have inside won’t let me stop; excellent people won’t let me stop, people with whom I have been creating this all these years. I am happy that someone has acknowledged all that effort because it was not easy for us. We thought we were invisible, so each award caught us by surprize.


You have been in business for 23 years, and yet you often say that you are at the beginning. What does it mean?

It means that I haven’t put all my ideas into practice yet. What we have done is far from what it is supposed to be. In all respects, not only in terms of size, but that too. I do not think we have yet created the system which would completely meet the requirements of patients, of man and of contemporary medicine. But, that is probably an eternal process and I think that is fine. I hope the idea will live on, that desire to create something better, more humane, and different. Moving on is the only way to survive nowadays. Like riding a bicycle - if you stop, you will fall off. You have to keep pedalling even through hard times. If the desire to achieve your goals is strong enough, if you manage to pass it on to other people who must have the same energy and the desire to leave the borders of the traditional, then it is possible to step forward. In this country, there are so many challenges and dangers, ground rules are not clearly defined, and you really have to be strong and ethical as a group, as a team and as an entity in order to resist and survive.


If you were to single out one success, your personal or the one of Bel Medic, what would it be?

That fact that we have stayed ethical throughout these hard times. I don’t think that either I or this institution have anything to be ashamed of, although the challenges we have faced were numerous. This is an inherently risky job, and not everything can be done the way we would like it to be. Facing the situations in which people die, the situations in which an illness progresses, and yet to stick to people through hard times instead of abandoning them when things do not go well - that is what matters. If in those moments they perceive you as people who have done everything they could - that, in my opinion, is a great success. That is the greatest value of the entire team and I am tremendously proud of that.


What would you say is the common feature Bitef and Bel Medic share?

Humane approach. Equal treatment of people of all ages and opinions. Universality, because medicine, like art, is universal. Medicine must keep up with the times, regardless of its traditional organization, it has to be open for new things and ready for innovations.

Apart from that, I love art, my husband is an artist. When we travel, we thrive on contemporary art, we always visit Venice biennale. Contemporary art is our way to deal with problems and inner dilemmas. I also think that I always try to bring some art in my job, although it might seem impossible, since we are constantly in contact with death and illness. Still, if we don’t approach that from an artistic point of view, if we don’t enjoy, while giving 100% in fighting for someone’s life, then all of this makes no sense. I think that medicine without an artistic approach cannot survive and move forward.


This year, Bitef main programme is marked by the topics of death and remembrance. In that respect, we have to ask you - how would you like to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as a person who proved that what is usually referred to as the American dream, and I would say the Serbian dream, can be achieved here as well. Making something out of nothing is possible if one has passion, love and vision. Our awards demonstrate that it is possible here, and that we can proudly fight to become a part of the international market, although we started from scratch and in the worst possible moment for our country. That is how I would like to be remembered because I think it would motivate young people to take things into their own hands, and work to create new values.


How do you understand this year’s slogan “World Without Us”?

In two ways. Digitization and virtual reality lead to alienation which does not necessarily have to imply something negative, because it might represent a return to ourselves, to our spiritual life, and all of that has brought many positive changes. But if it is extreme, it is not good, because we are human beings, we are directed to each other, and the interaction is necessary, it enriches and provides spiritual nourishment.

However, I think that world without people has yet another aspect. Globally speaking, we are living in hard times, times that do not favour people like me, and it scares me. In the blend of cultures and people, I see new creations, new ideas, and I find that inspiring. What I am afraid of is the spread of nationalism which is not creative and interactive, but erects some new barriers. The path which the world has taken might not be the right one, alongside the accompanying alienation. The tendency towards seclusion and proving oneself smarter than others cannot be good and it will not last for a long time.