Healthcare is a big topic in China at the moment, thanks to the Healthy China 2020 initiative, but there have been major reforms going on in the sector for the past 14 years as the government has sought to modernise the way disease is dealt with and radically upgrade its medical infrastructure. Part of this has involved acknowledging that there are still a lot of unmet medical needs – something that’s not really surprising in a country with a population of nearly 1.4 billion people. It’s investing heavily in training more medical staff and developing medical research businesses, building up the capacity to give its people a better future.
In May 2018, the Chinese government released a list of rare diseases that it sees as treatment priorities. In Europe, a rare disease is defined as one that affects no more than one in every 2,000 people, but together, the 121 diseases on that first list affect 16 million people in China. The aim of the project is to increase awareness of these ailments and improve training for frontline medical staff so they’re better equipped to help sufferers. The focus at this stage is on diseases that create a heavy burden in terms of the damage they do and the resultant economic impact, but that are or should be highly treatable with the right approach.
With treatability a priority, China clinical research on these diseases is being strongly encouraged, with incentives available both to Chinese healthcare companies and to those based elsewhere. With so many patients with rare diseases in China clinical trials, they are a highly practical way to advance drug development for patients all around the world. The Chinese Organisation for Rare Diseases (CORD) is helping by facilitating the exchange of information between participating companies and personnel. There are around 7,000 rare diseases in total, so there’s plenty of room for this project to expand as progress is made.
Diseases that are difficult to treat effectively
The ageing population that has resulted from China’s one-child policy means that there’s a high incidence of some types of cancer in the country, and over 10,000 Chinese people are diagnosed with cancer every day. Cancers of the gut are especially prevalent, and among the most difficult to treat. Because smoking is still very popular (around a third of all smokers in the world are Chinese), there are elevated rates of lung cancer and other pulmonary diseases, as well as cardiovascular diseases. Naturally, there is a huge demand for better solutions to these problems, and the large patient population makes the country a leading research location, with easy access to suitable volunteers for trials.
Many of these diseases are slow to develop, and chronic diseases – which last year overtook infection as the most common cause of mortality – is also a significant problem in China, reducing quality of life and putting a strain on resources. Recently, China medical device registration has been simplified to make it easier for foreign companies to develop devices for the Chinese market so that improved monitoring and support can be made available to patients in this type of situation. Not only do individuals need access to medical devices, they’re also needed by the country’s expanding network of hospitals and clinics, a demand that is likely to keep on growing for many years into the future.
Healthcare and poverty
Overall, Chinese people have seen a rapid rise in their standard of living over the past few decades, but around a third of the population still face a daily financial struggle, which can make healthcare difficult to access. The government has committed itself to ensuring that every Chinese citizen has basic healthcare insurance, which means that these people are starting to get access to the treatment they need. The experiences of other countries that have introduced systems like this, such as the UK, tells us that it will probably take some time for them to become fully aware of the sort of treatment available to them, and to get into the habit of seeking medical treatment. As they do, however, China’s healthcare market is likely to expand considerably, which is partly why the NMPA (National Medical Products Administration) has been revising its rules, making it easier for foreign companies to enter the market and help to meet demand.
Urbanisation means that an increasing number of Chinese people are suffering from the effects of pollution, eating unhealthy diets and getting little exercise, so the country’s disease profile is likely to change further over the next decade, especially for the urban poor. Extensive work is needed to tackle these problems, but with an increasingly engaged and proactive government willing to work on a scale that’s simply not possible elsewhere, there’s room for major advancement to take place.