Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 2 News List

Hou meets his biggest challenge yet

THANKLESS JOB Hou Sheng-mou is perhaps better qualified than anyone to help fix the troubled national health system. But will he be up to the Herculean task?

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

The new director-general of the Department of Health, Hou Sheng-mou, left, shakes hands yesterday with a guest attending the inauguration ceremony while Hou's wife, Liu Hsiu-wen, watches.

TAIPEI TIMES FILE PHOTO

What would prompt a famous doctor to put aside his stellar career, step out of the hospital, and embark on the difficult road of bettering the country's health policy? That was the question on everyone's mind when the renowned orthopedist Hou Sheng-mou (侯勝茂) became director-general of the Department of Health on Friday.

The question is even more perplexing, given the fact that Hou took the post at a time of crisis. Before Hou became the DOH's deputy director-general last December, the health authority was already reeling under the financial woes of the National Health Insurance (NHI) system. The NT$4.3 billion safety reserve for the universal insurance program was expected to be used up by next month. The NT$12.8 billion annual deficit was expected to edge higher. And the citizen panel the DOH recruited to discuss possible solutions last month spurned the official proposal to raise insurance premiums.

The situation was made pricklier when the new Premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) announced "four noes" on insurance fare hikes -- a gift for the citizens on the first working day after the Lunar New Year holidays. Any insurance fare hike likely to vex the masses has become a taboo subject -- and a bitter pill that the new administration dares not force the public to swallow before they consolidate their power.

Hou knows well that fixing the troubled health system will be the most arduous task he's ever attempted.

"It is like a seriously ill ten-year-old boy," he said. "We need to examine him first and prescribe drugs. And if that doesn't work, we need further treatments or even major operation."

One of the fastest-rising stars in the nation's medical profession, Hou excels not only as an orthopedic surgeon but also in hospital management. At the age of 42, Hou became Taiwan's youngest hospital superintendent and brought record-breaking profits to the DOH-funded Taipei Hospital in Singhuang, Taipei County. Later, Hou honed his administrative skills during his term as deputy superintendent at the prestigious National Taiwan University Hospital and director of educational affairs at the university.

His academic achievements also earned him the position of dean of NTU's school of medicine and the Delta Omega Honor Society Award from Johns Hopkins University. A member of the American Osteopathic Association, Hou is one of the few Taiwanese medical academics who has publish papers in the association's journal.

In his tenure at NTU Hospital, Hou also cultivated strong political ties. When heavyweight doctors vied to become the hospital's superintendent in July, Hou was deemed the candidate with the best shot at the job. Hou grabbed more media attention when he became an instructor to President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) son-in-law at the hospital.

With his abundance of administrative and medical talent, and political connections, it's hard to find someone who can rival Hou. And yet all of that skill and talent may not be enough to fix the tottering NHI. Hou himself admitted that he has little experience with managing the system.

"NHI is really a hot potato. I'm a new student who has just started to learn this ultra-complicated system," he said. "I've spent every minute I can spare on pondering how to keep the NHI program afloat."

Can the doctor-turned-official cure the nation's ailing health system? It's a question that Hou will spend his term answering.

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