The government has launched a new organisation tasked with promoting the UK's health sector to overseas customers, increasing the trade value of its products and services.

The so-called 'specialist healthcare export unit', a joint initiative between the Department of Health, NHS Commissioning Board and UK Trade & Investment, has been set up to help international customers - from both the public and private sectors - access the UK’s healthcare expertise.

The commercially-run unit will work much like a dating agency by using the UKTI's overseas network of trade teams in nearly 100 different countries to identify the best opportunities and help interested foreign parties keen to work with NHS bodies and other healthcare providers in the country.

Healthcare UK will also run campaigns to boost the profile of the UK’s health sector overseas as well as facilitate the creation of consortia of UK-based consortia to "provide complete solutions to major healthcare challenges," the Department of Health said.

The concept of healthcare exports has ben kicking around Whitehall for some time. Speaking to PharmaTimes UK News last year, Health Minister Lord Howe said that "originally, the focus was on how can the NHS sell its intellectual property and its systems overseas and also develop philanthropic benefits abroad, but this focus has now widened - the opportunity runs much wider than the NHS".

And announcing the birth of the group in Dubai this week, he stressed that “Healthcare UK is good news for the UK economy which will benefit from the extra jobs and revenue created by our highly successful healthcare industries as they trade more across the globe."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health confirmed to PharmaTimes UK News that any profit made will go back into NHS organisations. 

Strong demand for UK skills is expected from the Middle East in particular, where some countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Libya are redesigning their healthcare systems and having to cope with a huge drain on resources and services by very high rates of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes. 

But there are also opportunities in India, China and Brazil, according to Trade and Investment Minister Lord Green.

Recent examples of successes for the UK’s health sector on foreign shores include: an agreement between the University of Bradford and the Dubai Health Authority to provide nursing and midwifery education to nurses working in the field; a 10 year agreement under which Serco will provide facilities and operational management at Fiona Stanley Hospital at Murdoch, Western Australia; and a collaboration between UK Biocentre and the National Guard Health Affairs for the development of a Biobank in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“The expansion of healthcare provision across the globe represents a significant trade opportunity to the UK," commented Lord Green, adding that "Healthcare UK will deliver a step-change in the value of the UK’s exports in healthcare”.