China’s Belt & Road Health Initiative is marked by exchange, collaboration and professional development

HMA speaks with Dr. Zhang Junhua, Director-General of the Health Human Resources Development Center at the National Health Commission of China to find out more about the country’s next healthcare milestones.

The Belt and Road Initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government since year 2013. To echo that, the Chinese National Health Commission (NHC) unveiled its first three-year Belt & Road Health Exchange and Cooperation Protocol in 2015 and related guidelines in 2018. Subsequently, the Health Human Resources Development Center (HHRDC) also established the Belt & Road Health Professional Development Alliance on 25 June 2019.

According to Dr. Zhang, the Alliance plays a pivoting role in facilitating health exchange and cooperation between China and the World as well as overseeing local healthcare professional development. Judging by that, the Alliance has enjoyed some preliminary success as it’s now made up of more than 230 local and international members. Many of them are from top-tier hospitals, reputable medical colleges and affiliated health associations and enterprises.

“The Alliance has long-term cooperative relations with countries like the US, Italy, France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore and Japan and is committed to the training of medical and healthcare personnel and academic exchanges,” Dr. Zhang said. Indeed, Alliance members are constantly in touch with one another. Thus far, four conferences on hospital management and medical personnel training had taken place and more than 200 virtual events were held during the COVID-19 pandemic period as China shares with the World her clinical experiences and effort to prevent and control the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Last March, The Alliance launched an online Knowledge Center for China’s Experiences in Response to COVID-19, which was mentioned twice by President Xi Jinping at the G20 leaders’ special summit against COVID-19 and the national commendation meeting against COVID-19. President Xi stressed that the knowledge centre is open to all countries around the World. The knowledge Center is supporting China with strategies and wisdom needed to combat against the pandemic globally.

Dr. Zhang Junhua

A month later, the Alliance also started a COVID-19 virtual health consultation platform for overseas Chinese. Till now, it has provided free health consultations to more than 7 million Chinese residing out of the nation and been visited by about 170 million people. NHC rated the platform as an excellent example of using digital services to benefit the public.

Director Zhang added, while there are many plus points in China’s combat against COVID-19, the pandemic has nonetheless, exposed many of the nation’s weaknesses in infection control, public health service, and handling of public health emergency. As such, China is planning to strengthen her public health service system, by introducing reforms in disease prevention and control, building better standard public health colleges, and training more senior public health personnel, clinicians, and physicians.

At the same time, China also realised the country has a shortage of specialists in the areas of intensive care, infection control, epidemiology, respiration, anaesthesia, psychotherapy and nursing. Attending and treating the most severe COVID-19 cases require commitment and collaboration of a multi-disciplinary team, to minimise adverse outcomes and even deaths. Presently, both intensive care medicine and psychotherapy have been included in the national standardized training program for medical residents.

However, challenges remain. Public health, epidemiology, intensive care, and respiratory are not popular specialisms for Chinese medical students, who tend to prefer surgery, cardiology, and orthopaedic. Public health physicians are not well-regarded in hospitals and disease prevention and control personnel tended to be underpaid. More importantly, the training cycle of medical professional is long, it takes at least eight years for medical students to complete the needed standardise training before they are competent at clinical setting.

“This is where the role of the Alliance becomes valuable,” Dr. Zhang noted. “We are the middle-person inviting experts and scholars from well-known medical colleges and hospitals overseas to China to teach and share their clinical and medical expertise. Likewise, hospital leaders from China are able to learn from their counterparts from the US, Europe, and countries along the Belt and Road through conferences and professional training”.

For examples, the Alliance had designed an exchange program between Directors of Chinese and American hospitals and a training program for young clinicians from both countries. The UPMC University of Pittsburgh Medical Center also expressed its interest to work with Chinese hospitals and is willing to help in the training of local clinical talents. A similar attempt was made between China and the Tuscany and Marche regions in Italy via the China-Italy Clinical Training and China-Italy Pharmaceutical Talent Training programs.

HMA China online exchange is due to take place this April. Dr. Zhang is looking forward to an in-depth discussion and interaction between hospital leaders in China and other parts of the World, to learn more about how other hospitals are keeping up with their COVID-19 pandemic effort, safeguard safety of patient and frontline staff, performance assessment and evaluation, digitisation and so on.