The government is preparing to launch a major new initiative aimed at helping UK healthcare providers, in both the public and private sectors, export their knowledge and expertise to governments and other major payers overseas.

The initiative, to be named Healthcare UK, will be a commercially-run collaboration between the Department of Health and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). It will act as a "dating agency," utilising UKTI's overseas network of trade teams, to help governments and others who want to work in partnership with NHS bodies and other healthcare providers in the UK.

Healthcare UK's managing director will also be a joint Department of Health/UKTI appointment, and a suitable candidate is currently being sought to lead this small unit - expected to number only around eight people. An official launch date for the agency has been given as the first half of 2013, although people close to the plans have told Pharma Times that if an MD is appointed soon, the unit could be launched some time this year.

The idea for Healthcare UK has been around internally in government for some time, Health Minister Lord Howe told Pharma Times. "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," he said.

Other officials also emphasise that the initiative is also "massively" about UK private-sector healthcare expertise.

They see particularly strong demand for UK skills coming from many Middle Eastern countries, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Libya, which are rebuilding their healthcare systems and also having to face up to the massive burden created by very high rates of non-communicable diseases, especially diabetes. A recent international report put the UK system of managing diabetes far ahead of other most developed countries. 

There are also immense opportunities in India - and in China, which regards the UK as its preferred life sciences partner, and this could offer significant new potential for UK-based drugmakers.

China can see itself having to pay "huge amounts" to western companies for medicines, so it is therefore keen to co-develop its own in-house capabilities in drug development, the Minister of Universities and Science, David Willetts, has pointed out.