UPMC officials said their plan to eventually operate five hospitals in China is still on track despite the COVID-19 pandemic's effects on its partner in the effort.
The Wanda Group, a massive multinational conglomerate based in Beijing, specializes in real estate and film. Its umbrella of operations includes hundreds of movie theaters, malls and hotels that were forced to temporarily close during the pandemic. But Pittsburgh-based UPMC said the team still plans to open the first hospital in Chengdu in mid-2022.
"We've been working very hard throughout the pandemic to keep the project on track," said Jeff Bernstein, senior vice president of UPMC International and its country manager for China. UPMC announced the venture with Wanda in October.
Wanda, also known as the Dalian Wanda Group, operates about 250 malls in China, and is among the largest mall operators in downtown Wuhan, a large city of about 11 million people where the earliest cases of COVID-19 were reported, Bernstein said. While Wanda's operations in China were "heavily impacted" during the shutdown, the company has since been able to bounce back, especially given China's rapid pace of recovery relative to other countries, he said.
Under Wanda's partnership with UPMC, its first foray into healthcare, Wanda will fund the hospitals' construction and operating costs and will pay UPMC to manage the facilities. The first hospital in Chengdu, about a 700-mile drive from Wuhan, is currently under construction and the estimated completion date has not been pushed back.
If anything, the pandemic has underscored the importance of preventive care and has expanded the scope of the project to focus on that, said Chuck Bogosta, president of UPMC International. Instead of people just showing up to hospitals when they're sick, Bogosta said UPMC now envisions a post-COVID environment where their hospitals staff primary care providers who keep tabs on patients. In the future, they'll also provide access to vaccines, he said.
"That's kind of the difference between the future and how it's going now," Bogosta said.
But in addition to the strain caused by the pandemic, Wanda is also facing a significant amount of maturing debt. The company will need to refinance or pay the equivalent of $5.7 billion in bonds this year, almost 36% of its outstanding notes, according to a Bloomberg analysis from March. Wanda in recent years has been reportedly selling off assets to pay off debt, including The Ironman Group last month, which hosts Ironman triathlons and other competitions.
The hospital in Chengdu will be part of a mixed-use development with residential and commercial properties situated near a large park, Bernstein said. The idea is to provide easy access to nearby residents in addition to the broader Chengdu population, he said. UPMC is currently "heavily recruiting" doctors and other providers to work in the hospital, Bernstein said.