Healthy opportunity for Ireland in China


ASIA BRIEFING:AMONG THE sites visited on the latest high-profile Irish trade mission in China, last week’s healthcare delegation led by Minister for Health James Reilly, was the Peking Union Medical College in Beijing.

Founded by missionaries in 1906, funded later by Rockefeller money and modelled on the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, it has long provided China with excellent doctors and has China’s most technically advanced healthcare facilities.

China is in the throes of major reform of its healthcare system as costs rise, public hospitals face increasing problems and the number of patients with chronic illnesses continues to increase.

All of which offers opportunities for Irish healthcare providers, from educators to medical devices makers – nearly all the major manufacturers of such devices have operations in Ireland.

“This is a huge opportunity for co-operation on areas of health in relation to medical education, collaboration on research and in relation to the advantage that Ireland might represent to a nation like China as a template for organisation and delivery of healthcare,” said Dr Reilly during his week-long visit.

Healthcare reform is taken very seriously. Dr Reilly’s Chinese counterpart, Chen Zhu, even wrote a poem in his ministry’s newspaper, Health News, to inspire workers to pursue reform.

“Wind and thunder move across the country, health reform brings good tidings,” it ran. An expert in haematology, Chen came across as open and well-informed to the Irish delegation.

The past few years have seen an enormous overhaul of China’s healthcare system, with new hospitals, expanded primary care facilities and better insurance coverage.

A richer China is not necessarily healthier, however. Changing lifestyle patterns, especially in terms of diet, have seen obesity and heart disease creep in, and more than 260 million of the country’s citizens suffer from a chronic disease.

Hospitals and doctors are financially dependent on medicine sales, and there are occasional riots in hospitals and attacks on doctors because of overprescribing, perceived bias or corruption.

The main focus for many on the delegation seemed to be on education, particularly on training healthcare trainers. Other institutions are looking at undergraduate and postgraduate opportunities.

Prof Cathal Kelly, chief executive of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said his institution is looking at ways to expand into China. It already has two successful colleges in Malaysia – the college in Penang recently graduated its thousandth doctor.

“We think our model is very successful and we are looking hard to see if we can do this further afield in China. Things are at a very preliminary stage. We’re looking to see where we can add value,” said Prof Kelly.

He said there was an appetite in China for undergraduate and postgraduate training in nursing, medicine and some pharmacy, as well as areas such as healthcare management.

According to a report by Citigroup this year, China’s medical device market is expected to grow 17 per cent this year, and this is a sector that the delegation, which had strong representation from the sector, was also keen to explore.

Americans have been particularly successful in this area. US healthcare products provider Covidien opened its first China research and development facility in Shanghai this month; the China Technology Centre spans more than 9,290 square metres, houses 17 laboratories and has state-of-the-art surgical and simulation suites that enable healthcare professionals to be involved in the design and development of medical devices.

It might be premature for Irish companies to start lining up these kinds of deals but the potential is clearly there.

“There is renewed interest in China in Ireland and there are opportunities for Irish companies to do business here, and the IDA and Enterprise Ireland are doing a super job in paving the way for new and existing companies to explore the opportunities that China presents,” said Dr Reilly.

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