When it comes exporting a business concept to China, a medical fitness facility to support chronic disease prevention may not be the first thing that comes to mind.
But that is exactly what the Wellness Institute at the Seven Oaks General Hospital has done.
Over the course of the last four years a unique collaboration has been forged between SOGH and the Chinese Hospital Association with the development of a potential game-changing project.
It culminated in Thursday’s opening of the Canada Wellness Centre at Rizhao Hospital in a small resort city in the north of China on the Yellow Sea in an event attended by China’s deputy minister of health and the Canadian ambassador to China.
It is a joint venture between the Wellness Institute at the Seven Oaks General Hospital and the Rizhao hospital and that city’s development corporation.
The Rizhao facility — at 80,000 square feet, almost exactly the same size as Seven Oaks’ Wellness Institute — is the first attempt in China to deal with chronic disease like diabetes and obesity and other lifestyle-related health issues like smoking cessation in a medical fitness centre connected to a hospital.
It is also the first time a Canadian hospital has engaged in this type of international partnership and it’s likely not the last for SOGH.
There are two other facilities in China using the same model that are about to get the green light that will also carry the "Canada Wellness Institute" name.
Carrie Solmundson, president and chief executive officer of SOGH seemed a little embarrassed to say it, but Canada Wellness Centre is SOGH’s brand in China.
"We did not go out there and knock on China’s door," Solmundson said. "They came to us."
That is to say SOGH did not set out to "franchise" its Wellness Institute model but has embraced the opportunity that has positive implications for SOGH both financially and in its contributions to public health outcomes around the world.
There is an undeniable sense of pride throughout SOGH that its model was selected over other American for-profit facilities, for instance.
SOGH officials believe that the Chinese chose the Winnipeg facility as a partner because of its operational experience and the fact that it is community-owned one much like their own.
"Just like in Canada, China is experiencing an aging population an increase in obesity and diabetes and chronic disease and major contributors to those issues are lifestyle related," Solmundson said.
The Chinese connection began after a fairly low-key tour of the hospital by a group of Chinese researchers in 2011 who were ostensibly looking at medical technology development.
But it was the Wellness Institute that caught the eye of some of the researchers.
Built in 1996 for $14 million, the Wellness Institute at SOGH remains the only facility of its kind in Canada attached to a hospital and came about only because of substantial community support at the time. It addresses health issues related to an aging population and prevention of chronic disease like diabetes and obesity and cardiac rehabilitation and other conditions that are lifestyle related.
It has been a big success. It has more than 7,000 members and offers an array of services with a highly skilled certified staff of about 50 full-time equivalent medical and fitness experts and annual revenue of about $7 million.
A subsequent tour of the hospital by another group of Chinese medical professionals led to an invitation for Solmundson to speak at a regional hospitals conference in China about a year later.
The was followed by the attendance of about 35 Chinese hospital administrators at a three-day symposium at the Wellness Institute last year when agreements were made to pursue cooperation in China.
Rizhao emerged as the place where all the stars aligned. There was a legacy facility from the 2008 Olympic Games they could retrofit and there was a civic administration that was very supportive.
"They recognized they did not have expertise or the knowledge on how to design, construct and manage one of these facilities," Solmundson said. "We started to think how we could do this."
The partnership is effectively a consulting role plus a licence agreement for using the brand plus an ongoing quality assurance role to ensure the Chinese meet the objectives
She said there are still many uncertainties as to how the development in China will play out and what SOGH’s ongoing role will be.
"It’s the first of its kind," she said. "We are still trying to figure it out."
As an absolute newcomer to the world of international trade, Solmundson said they received excellent support from Manitoba Trade and the Canadian embassy people in China.
Kevin Chief, the provincial minister responsible for Manitoba Trade, said, "I’m so proud of the support that the Seven Oaks and the Wellness Institute and Manitoba Trade and Investment are providing our friends in China and thankful for the Chinese investment here at home."
SOGH has already earned a $600,000 fee to provide design training and consulting services. That included documentation of all the Wellness Institute’s programing — translated into Mandarin — something the Winnipeg facility had never done.
Casie Nishi, the executive director of the Wellness Institute, said the experience has been exhilarating for her and her staff.
"It was a challenge to document our processes," she said. "But it forced us to look at how we do things and articulate it and write it down. In a lot of ways it has made us stronger here."
Even if it turns out there is only on Canada Wellness Institute in China — which is not likely because the proposal has already been agreed to for the second facility on Hainan Island — it’s clear that SOGH has already come out a winner.
Don McDonald, the chairman of SOGH’s board of directors, said "It is beyond our wildest dream. We could not be happier. The fact we were picked.... The Chinese went to lots of facilities and they selected us. It’s great for us. There’s lots of professional satisfaction."
Want to get a head start on your day?
Get the day’s breaking stories, weather forecast, and more sent straight to your inbox every morning.
Staff input — which has included on-site participation in China from about 10 employees from both the Wellness Institute and the hospital — has not gotten in the way of the day-to-day operations in Winnipeg.
Solmundson said, "We had to think long and hard. It was a major organizational issue we had to think about."
McDonald said, "I have never heard any suggestion that the time devoted to this project has in any way detracted from any of our primary work as a hospital."
Whatever revenue SOGH eventually earns from its partnerships in the Canada Wellness Institutes will be plowed back into the hospital’s operations.
Management across the board is adamant that the top priority of SOGH and the Wellness Institute will always be addressing its own patients and members.
Martin Cash Reporter
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.