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DIALOGUE: Bringing Excellent Healthcare to Tianjin’s Exptriate Community
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An interview with John Williams, Managing Director, International SOS, China

Tell us about your professional background and your career highlights so far.                                       
I originate from the UK and graduated from the University of Leeds and Fudan University in Shanghai. I started off in 1986 in London as an insurance broker and in 1989 was appointed as General Manager of their China subsidiary, which took me to Beijing. In 1998 I joined International SOS as General Manager and am currently Managing Director for China and Mongolia. 
 
Career highlights so far include breakthroughs with securing licenses in China, which are always a challenge to obtain. I succeeded in getting my former employer the first-ever insurance broking license in China and have worked closely with government bodies to achieve many key licenses since. Other career highlights include facilitating the first-ever medical evacuation between mainland China and Taiwan, arranging the partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide medical assistance to Chinese diplomats overseas and the mass evacuation of Chinese tourists after a bus accident in Hoover Dam, USA, in 2009. 
 
What are the major challenges of managing this kind of organisation?                                                
In the past, healthcare was not a strongly promoted area for foreign companies to be involved in China. So the regulatory framework has always been challenging for us, particularly navigating the licensing process and obtaining permission to open new clinics in China.
 
Staffing and retention is also an ongoing challenge; bringing on board highly-qualified doctors and professionals with the appropriate experience. Attracting foreign doctors and other experts to come to China to work and live can be challenging because of concerns about air quality, cultural and language challenges and access to education. Attracting the best and the brightest amongst Chinese nationals is a continual challenge in the war on talent in China. 
 
You have been working in China for 24 years. What kind of changes have you seen in the business sector over your time here?    
I have witnessed changes in every aspect of doing business. In the 1980s when I first arrived, it was difficult finding staff that spoke English and had the right skills. However, today there is a large pool of talent in China with very strong skills and experience. There has been a large increase in salaries over that time which can mean challenges in terms of managing costs for businesses.
 
There is a younger generation of government officials that are very willing to help find solutions for foreign businesses to enter markets and are willing to help overcome entry barriers.  Previously it was more challenging for businesses to enter these markets. At the same time the healthcare sector has undergone huge reforms in recent years with very significant state sector investment which has improved physical infrastructure and has begun to address many of the inadequacies of the State health system. This makes it an interesting and challenging environment in which to work.   
 
The Chinese legal structure has become much more transparent and organized, particularly in Beijing and Shanghai, although challenges still remain in second and third cities.
 
Can you give our readers some insight into the work that International SOS does in China?
We have been in China since the late 80s and are therefore very well established. Today we employ more than 600 people in China, more than half of which are medical professionals.
 
International SOS’ mission is to look after the needs of our clients and their demand for international-standard healthcare. Health risks in China vary depending on location and foreign companies need to recognize and manage these risks. One of the most important things that we do for our clients is provide information and guidance to our members, in a way that they are familiar with: we can advise which hospital's to go to, which doctor's to see, we can arrange appointments, help with translation and also accompany patients. At our clinics, we provide high quality international standards of healthcare  that you would expect abroad. We have a 24/7 assistance centre that directly connects to the other 27 assistance centres we operate around the globe and we provide on-site medical services on 32 client sites in China.  We also support Chinese clients who have their operations in other parts of the world, from Mongolia to Niger in Africa.
 
How competitive is the international style healthcare industry in China and what gives International SOS the edge?          
The industry is most certainly becoming competitive with an unprecedented wave of investment from both domestic and international sources. There already is a variety of international-style healthcare options in Tier 1 cities, but still developing in 2nd and 3rd tier cities. The public sector is developing international wards within specialty hospitals that allow access to international-style care, that may have been difficult to access in the past.  Despite the rapid development, challenges for foreigners when navigating the system remain, such as language barriers, cultural differences, access to ancillary services and busy medical facilities.  Our role at International SOS is to help organizations, families and individuals navigate through the complexities of the system and determine the most appropriate medical facilities specific for their medical condition and individual circumstances.
 
International SOS is not a standard hospital or clinic. We are pioneers in the health and security assistance industries globally, as an assistance organization that provides a plethora of healthcare and security services for global clients wherever they may be. Our advantage is the high quality and standards across the globe and vast network which we can provide: we handle everything from routine medical or security advice, to the most challenging operations across borders such as mass evacuations and acute trauma cases. So wherever you are in the world and whatever problem you have, we can help. 
 
As the international community in Tianjin is rapidly expanding, are you seeing more people turning to International SOS for assistance with their medical needs?      
                                       
Given the expectations of our clients in Tianjin for international standards of healthcare, we have expanded our own services by opening a new clinic in Binhai as an addition to our existing clinic in downtown Tianjin. Our clinics connect our members to emergency services, primary care and dispensary services. We also can coordinate evacuations out of the Tianjin and Binhai area to local hospitals, Beijing or internationally.  We intend to track the development trends of the different demographics in Tianjin and Binhai to offer the best healthcare solutions to each of these groups of people.
 
For many expatriates, access to healthcare for themselves and their families is one of the most worrying aspects of living abroad. What is your advice in terms of planning for medical emergencies whilst living in China?
We recommend that expatriates are  covered by a reputable global insurance company. In addition, individuals should have a medical and security assistance provider, such as International SOS, to whom they can turn for medical advice, information and help in the event of an emergency. 
 
Expatriates should become familiar the medical facilities near them and how to contact the municipal emergency response system. For International SOS members, this process is simplified as we can coordinate with ambulances or a range of medical facilities as necessary and provide valuable language support and medical expertise, so most importantly, the member needs to know is how to contact our 24/7 assistance center. 
 
In terms of healthcare in China generally, would you say that the standard of public health provisions is improving significantly as the country grows economically?     
The general healthcare system has improved markedly over the past few decades. The government has gone through a sizable program of investment in the past two to three years and all evidence points to the fact that the government will continue to invest. However, the scale of the challenge of providing healthcare to this vast population is huge. China’s healthcare is rapidly changing and lots of efforts are being made for further improvements, such as standardization in emergency services etc. 
 
Finally, tell us what you see the future of International SOS China looks like and what your goals are going forward.  
In the coming years, as people and companies increasingly go more global, we hope to establish an even stronger foothold as the company that looks after all people that go abroad for work or personal life. In China, as Duty of Care awareness improves, we anticipate more health promotion programs, training and workplace health measures that will benefit organizations and their employees. 
 
China continues to be one of the most important recipients of foreign direct investment and so we look forward to expanding our services to global companies and their employees and families locating to China.
 
With more Chinese companies expanding overseas, we are working with these companies to meet their medical and security challenges and provide crucial support, in places such as Africa and the Middle East. We have done a number of challenging medical evacuations for Chinese employees working in North Africa of late, and we are very proud to help bring these Chinese nationals home.  
 

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