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Pharma fight! Should you buy GlaxoSmithKline plc, Smith & Nephew plc or Hutchison China MediTech Limited?

Today I’m weighing up the prospects of London-quoted healthcare giants GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK), Smith & Nephew (LSE: SN) and Hutchison China MediTech (LSE: HCM).

In recovery

GlaxoSmithKline has been a serious casualty of the ‘generics’ wars that has bashed Big Pharma during the past few years.

The medicines giant saw sales of key labels Avodart and Seretide/Advair slump 15% and 13%, respectively, in 2015 against a backcloth of crumbling patent protection encouraging a swathe of new competitors to enter the marketplace.

However, GlaxoSmithKline has thrown the kitchen sink at replacing these blockbuster brands to drive group sales higher again. Indeed, the Brentford firm received marketing approval for its Nucala respiratory treatment in Japan, and Strimvelis rare disease drug in Europe, just in the past few weeks.

The drugs leviathan aims to secure 10 regulatory approvals in key growth areas like COPD in the next two years alone. And GlaxoSmithKline plans to start Phase II and III testing for another 30 potential sales drivers through to the end of 2017.

China star

As the name suggests, Hutchison China MediTech (or ‘Chi-Med’ as it’s popularly known) is aiming to deliver stunning earnings growth by taking Asian marketplaces by storm.

Emerging markets of course represent a key growth segment for the pharmaceuticals sector, where surging GDP expansion is underpinning massive increases in healthcare investment. Indeed, China’s Ministry of Finance plans to hike spending on “healthcare and family planning” by 47.2% in 2016 alone, to CNY12.4bn, Reuters reported in March.

And like GlaxoSmithKline, Chi-Med is embarking on exciting testing programmes to develop its own range of market-leading drugs. Just this month the company commenced ‘first-in-human’ clinical trials of its HMPL-689 small molecule inhibitor for the treatment of hematological cancers, for example.

Joints giant

At the other end of the spectrum, Smith & Nephew is steadily building its position as the world’s leading provider of artificial joints and limbs.

The company saw sales in established markets rise 6% during October-December, the biggest quarterly rise for more than three years. As well as solid organic growth, Smith & Nephew has shrewd purchases like that of ArthroCare in the Sports Medicine segment to thank for this improved performance.

And like GlaxoSmithKline and Chi-Med, Smith & Nephew views developing regions as a critical revenue driver in the years ahead. The joints play saw sales in these territories surge 11% in 2015 despite cyclical weakness in China. And purchases like that of its distributor EuroCiencia Colombia last year underline its faith in the potential of these marketplaces.

So what’s the verdict?

Well, on a pure value basis GlaxoSmithKline nudges ahead of its rivals at the current time. The company deals on a P/E rating of 17.5 times for 2016, and a proposed 80p-per-share dividend yields a smashing 5.3%.

By comparison, Smith & Nephew trades on an earnings multiple of 19.8 times and carries a payout yield of 1.9% (a 22.4p dividend is currently predicted). Meanwhile, Chi-Med is expected to keep racking up losses until 2017 at the earliest, and isn’t anticipated to furnish investors with a dividend any time soon, either.

That said, I believe each of the healthcare stocks here provide terrific long-term potential. Not only should a backcloth of population increases and rising affluence levels power healthcare investment across the globe, but all three operators are doubling-down on product development and acquisition activity to latch onto these positive trends.

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Royston Wild has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended GlaxoSmithKline. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.