Are AstraZeneca plc, Eco Animal Health Group plc and Advanced Medical Solutions Group plc the top healthcare picks right now?

With global stock markets likely to be volatile, healthcare companies are set to become increasingly popular. That’s because they can offer defensive prospects, while also having impressive growth potential.

One company that has stuttered somewhat on the growth front in recent years is AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN). In fact, its bottom line has fallen heavily as a loss of patents on key drugs has hurt sales, but with an acquisition programme set to deliver growth over the long run, AstraZeneca could become a more in-demand stock in the coming years.

While its growth rate has been disappointing in the past, AstraZeneca has remained a strong defensive play. It has a beta of 0.9 and with its earnings being less dependent on the wider economy than is the case for many of its index peers, the company’s shares could become more in demand. That’s especially the case if uncertainty surrounding the global economy increases and investors decide to adopt a more risk-off attitude in the coming months.

Growth and more growth

While AstraZeneca’s bottom line has fallen in recent years, Advanced Medical Solutions (LSE: AMS) has been able to record a rise in its earnings in each of the last five years. In fact, they’ve increased at an annualised rate of almost 13% during the period and looking ahead, further growth is on the horizon.

Certainly, a forecast of 3% earnings growth for the year to 31 December 2016 may be somewhat disappointing, but with an 8% increase forecast for next year, investor sentiment towards Advanced Medical Solutions could improve. That’s especially the case since its most recent annual results showed that it’s making good progress across all parts of its business. Notably, its LiquiBand tissue adhesive range recorded strong performance in the US, while its upbeat R&D product pipeline could allow it to deliver impressive earnings growth over the medium-to-long term.

Bright future

Meanwhile, Eco Animal Health (LSE: EAH) has delivered a stunning share price rise since the turn of the year. The animal pharmaceuticals specialist is up by 20%, at least partly due to multiple pieces of positive news flow regarding regulatory approval for the company’s products. They should provide Eco Animal Health with improved profit growth prospects in future years, with its forecasts for the next two years indicating that further share price rises are on the horizon.

For example, Eco Animal Health is expected to record a rise in its bottom line of 19% in the current year, followed by a further increase of 18% next year. These figures have the potential to cause a step change in investor sentiment towards Eco Animal Health and with its shares trading on a price-to-earnings growth (PEG) ratio of just 1.3, there’s significant upside potential on offer.

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Peter Stephens owns shares of Advanced Medical Solutions, AstraZeneca, and ECO Animal Health Group. The Motley Fool UK has recommended AstraZeneca. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.