China’s healthcare system has the potential to be innovative as it is experiencing an ageing population that is rapidly increasing its rate of disease.
All industries, from established companies to young startups, recognize the potential of digital technologies such as telehealth or artificial intelligence to help alleviate China’s overworked healthcare professionals and provide better care.
The 2019 Future Health expats in China Index by Philips, which was compiled from surveys of healthcare professionals in 15 countries, shows that China is the leader in digital health technology adoption.
Global health technology innovators who are looking to China for their solutions face many obstacles. These include a unique regulatory environment, a different medical and digital infrastructure, and the inability to access existing solutions that can be used more widely in rural and impoverished areas.
What can be done to overcome these barriers? Global health technology companies must rethink their traditional import model for western-made medical products in order to make China’s healthcare system more modern. The key to innovation success today is having a deep understanding and ability to build local partnerships. This is how you combine a global and local mindset.
China’s healthcare services are unevenly distributed
The uneven distribution of resources in China is a problem aspect of China’s healthcare system. This makes it difficult to innovate locally.
While major cities in China have access to hospitals of the highest quality, many smaller cities and rural areas don’t. The lack of primary care facilities only exacerbates this problem. According to the World Health Organization, China has one general practitioner per 6,666 residents, while there is an international standard of one practitioner for every 1,500-2,000.
People flock to hospitals and travel hundreds of miles to be treated, only to end up waiting in long lines. Hospital specialists can see up to 200 patients per day, which is often the case.
It is clear that a global provider of health technology needs to look beyond the traditional model of importing technological innovation and fitting it into existing healthcare systems.
Access to and affordability of care should be improved
How does it look in practice? We need to find new ways to provide medical expertise to more patients in remote areas and those less fortunate than the rest of China. This can be done by connecting high-quality hospitals with smaller, primary care facilities and hospitals that are more accessible to patients. This allows them to pool their expertise and resources to offer quality care at a lower cost throughout the country.
Local impact through innovation organizing
As a Market Leader for Philips Greater China I can attest that it takes more than a good understanding of China’s healthcare system, the needs of patients and caregivers, to develop locally relevant solutions. This requires a completely different approach to organizing innovation.
It was centrally managed when health technology innovation was centered on the delivery of better hardware, such as high-resolution CT scanners. In order to make innovations available to the markets, they relied on a multi-tiered network that included local distributors.
Navigating China’s regulatory waters
Knowledge of local regulations is another important capability that can be added to this collaborative mix. It can be difficult to navigate China’s regulatory waters. One study examined innovative technologies that were cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), between 2010 and 2014. It found that only 38% had been approved and imported into China by mid 2015 – regulation being the biggest hurdle.
The situation is more complicated for technologies still in the early stages of healthcare such as artificial intelligence. Regulations need to be further developed. Here is where I see a chance for health technology providers and regulators to strengthen their collaboration. We can all work together to create conditions that allow for responsible and safe innovation in the industry.
Local knowledge, global relevance
Global actors can be a driving force for local innovation in healthcare, if they combine an understanding of local market realities with a wider global outlook.
Many of the current healthcare challenges are not limited to China or one country. Despite how their healthcare systems are structured, they are common across the globe. Similar challenges are faced by other regions of the globe in providing healthcare to dispersed populations. All of us can learn from one another.