Mon, May 19, 2003 - Page 3 News List

Tough times lie ahead for health chief

SARS FIGHT In-hospital infection is just one of the problems facing Chen Chien-jen, who took over at the Department of Health earlier this week

By Debby Wu  /  STAFF REPORTER

New Department of Health chief Chen Chien-jen shakes hands with President Chen Shui-bian. The Chen Chien-jen took over from former director-general Twu Shiing-jer earlier this week.

TAIPEI TIMES FILE PHOTO

When Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) became the head of the Department of Health (DOH), he knew that some tough times lay ahead of him in the battle against SARS because of increasing cases of in-hospital infections.

Fortunately, the 52-year-old Chen is already a seasoned veteran of the SARS fight.

As a leading epidemiologist in the country, he had been advising the government on its SARS strategy since the outbreak first appeared and was appointed chairman of the SARS Advisory Committee in late March.

When President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) first convened a meeting on the SARS epidemic on April 27, he had Chen give a speech to the public.

Over the past few weeks Chen Chien-jen has made numerous appearances on TV giving the latest information on the potentially fatal coronavirus. His lucidity earned much appreciation and helped to establish his authority among the public.

With this hands-on SARS experience and public recognition, it was no surprise when the government announced Chen as the successor of Twu Shiing-jer (涂醒哲).

Chen's takeover of the top job at the DOH was the first time the post had been filled by a person with no medical background, something that has sparked anxiety whether or not he can lead the department and successfully mobilize the nation's medical system.

In the medical field, seniority is often an important quality that enables director-generals to effectively manage hospitals and other personnel.

If superintendents of major hospitals are further up the seniority scale than the head of the health department, they might ignore orders from above, simply because they believe the DOH chief is too young and inexperienced.

Hospital chiefs also want the DOH head to come from a medical background because they believe that clinical experience helps breed a similar way of thinking that both people can relate to.

Such worries, however, may be unfounded.

"There is no need to worry whether Chen can proceed with his work smoothly," said Chen Tzay-jinn (陳再晉), former director of the Center for Disease Control. "He has got the ability and reputation to do the job."

"There have been previous director-generals who, although they carried a doctor's license, did not have much clinical experience," he said.

Chen's abilities are indeed noteworthy.

He earned a master's degree in public health from National Taiwan University in 1977, and he completed his doctor's degree in epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in 1982.

He became a professor of National Taiwan University (NTU) Graduate School of Public Health at the age of 35 in 1986, and later the head of the NTU College of Public Health at the age of 48.

He was the instructor to both director of Taipei City Bureau of Health Chiu Shu-ti (邱淑媞) and deputy director-general of the DOH Lee Lung-teng (李龍騰) when the two were in graduate school.

At 47, he was also honored with the title of researcher at the Academia Sinica.

He was the vice chairman of National Science Council before switching to the DOH.

Chen also has a strong political family background.

His father, Chen Hsin-an (陳新安), was the second elected mayor in Kaohsiung County. He was seen as the founder of the Kaohsiung Pai faction, one of the three most influential political groups in the area. The Legislative Speaker Wang Jing-pyng (王金平) belongs to the local faction.

Chen will fly to Geneva tonight to participate in the World Health Assembly (WHA), as the official representative for Taiwan. The WHA is usually attended by the ministers of health departments of the member countries.

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