No 2 at Health Bureau is just what the doctor ordered

Professor Sophia Chan has shown she knows her subject since becoming No 2 at the Health Bureau. As for the politics, she's learning fast

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 January, 2013, 12:47pm

Fresh from overseeing the School of Nursing at the University of Hong Kong, it seemed Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee needed little time in her new role as No 2 at the Food and Health Bureau to start issuing orders.

There is little doubt of Chan's knowledge when it comes to health but she herself has had to acknowledge her lack of experience when it comes to politics.

"I will have to learn along the way," Chan told the Post. "And there's no time for me to be slow about picking it up either."

Her decision to quit academia to try to stand the searing heat of the kitchen, as Leung Chun-ying has described his government, came as a surprise.

Explaining what prompted her decision, she said: "I have worked in clinical research and in education; it is only natural to take the next step into policy."

Chan added: "The purpose of doing research is to push for change, but a university paper can only point out the problems and suggestions on how to solve them. Real action comes with policymaking."

When Food and Health Secretary Dr Ko Wing-man - a former administrator at a public hospital and later a private doctor - began his hunt for an undersecretary, he said he was looking for someone who could supplement his own knowledge. Chan, whose active role in the city's anti-smoking campaign brought her into the public eye, fitted the profile.

She pioneered the first local training programme in stop-smoking counselling and has been a consultant to the World Health Organisation on training health-care professionals in tobacco dependency treatment interventions.

Her duties now as undersecretary have already seen her cover a wide range of issues since her appointment in October. She has addressed the Legislative Council several times to answer questions from lawmakers - ranging from the introduction of a marketing code for infant formula, and the supervision of the beauty industry following the death of a patient who underwent a blood transfusion therapy at the DR Beauty company.

The marketing code aimed at stopping exaggerated claims being made by some infant formula brands is one of her most important tasks at present, amid fears that milk powder ads are discouraging breastfeeding. Chan said the government was determined to ensure the code covered all food targeted at children under three years old, rather than manufacturers' suggestion to limit the code to food targeting babies up to six months old only.

She said it was important to guard against loopholes that meant marketing could still be used to try to brainwash mothers away from breastfeeding. "A few years ago, I saw what appeared to be a quit-smoking message being advertised by a tobacco company in the United States. I was intrigued. Later I found out that this was a tactic for tobacco companies to promote their brands without breaking any regulations."

Regarding the milk formula advertising code, she added: "If the code only covers formula for infants below six months old, the brands will still be able to use formulas designed for children above six months old to put forward exaggerated messages. Mothers may not be able to tell the difference between the ads and fall for the claims."

Recalling her first experience addressing the Legislative Council, she said: "I am grateful that the lawmakers were not too harsh on me."

Just two months into her new job, Chan got a bout of flu and had all but lost her voice when she attended a Legco health panel meeting. However, she won the lawmakers' pity and praise for working through her illness.

But politics remains a tough game. Chan's predecessor, and friend, Gabriel Leung was said to have been the victim of a power struggle when he quit politics.

Leung had served as undersecretary for three years before then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-keun appointed him head of his office in 2011. At the time, former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen was the man tipped to be the next chief executive. When Leung Chun-ying took office, it is believed he was not keen on Tsang's appointment.

Many of Gabriel Leung's ex-colleagues were sad to see him leave, but news that Chan would be replacing him was welcomed - and one report has suggested the new undersecretary has taken the opportunity to learn from her predecessor how to do the job the best she can.


Sophia Chan

Age 54

Education Master of Public Health, Harvard University; Master of Education, Manchester University; philosophy graduate, University of Hong Kong (HKU)

Previous posts Consultant to the World Health Organisation on training health-care professionals in tobacco dependency treatment; head of HKU school of nursing

[Correction: An earlier version gave the incorrect age of Sophia Chan as 58. She is 54.]