Technological progress is making Chinese medicine more efficient than doctors could ever have imagined just a few years ago. Today's precision instruments use a wide range of devices – lasers, radiation devices, nuclear imaging, magnetism, testing sensors, chemical tests, biological medicine technology – and all rely increasingly on information technology.
Spending in excess of US$1bn a year on medical equipment and devices, more than half of it imported, China has become the largest market for such products in Asia after Japan. A major opportunity exists for foreign suppliers of medical equipment that are able to finance hospital purchases. In 1999 China imported US$370m of medical equipment from the US, US$329m from Japan and US$310m from Germany, according to China's customs statistics
Expansion of services
China's recent strong economic growth has allowed substantial investment in medicine, leading to deep reform. In the country's quest to expand its medical and healthcare services, hospitals are looking to spend more on modern medical devices.
Products in demand include X-ray machines and fault diagnostic equipment, nuclear magnetic resonance imaging systems, monitoring and rescue equipment, and radiation equipment. In addition to these devices, traditional equipment such as endoscopes, ultrasound scanners and hearing aids are being purchased in greater quantities.
Advanced medical devices play a significant role in improving the standard of medical care. Shanghai's Huashan Hospital, for example, is famed for its skilled professionals and high level of medical expertise. It treats about 900,000 outpatients and 12,000 inpatients every year and is equipped with high-tech equipment, including computed tomography, Pet Scans and Gamma-knives.
"Every year, about 10,000 to 20,000 patients benefit from these devices," says the section chief Qian Jianguo of Huashan's equipment department. "Diagnostic equipment can assess a patient's condition accurately and promptly, allowing doctors to make a rapid and correct diagnosis. Treatment equipment can help doctors to cure illness, raise success rates and relieve the patient's pain."
For example, Huashan is the only hospital in Shanghai using the Gamma Knife, recognised worldwide as the preferred treatment for metastatic brain tumours. It offers a noninvasive alternative to patients for whom traditional brain surgery is not an option. Two thousand outpatients benefit every year.
However, in rural areas, especially in remote mountainous regions, the services and facilities are frequently inadequate. Statistics from a government report for China as a whole show that the mortality rate of pregnant women and infants is 10 times higher than in developed countries. In poorer provinces, mortality rates are three times worse than the national average.
A lack of disposable equipment and sterilisers in rural areas means that women and infants are vulnerable to bacterial infection. Outside the cities, there are too few doctors and nurses, the supply of drugs is inadequate and the equipment is often outdated. Of China's 180,000 medical institutions, 15 per cent are equipped with medical devices dating from the 1960s and 1970s.
Call to improve standards
A recent report published by Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council called for the standard of healthcare in China's coastal areas to match that of a moderately developed country by 2010. At the same time, the standard in China's poorer areas should be on a par with developing countries.
To achieve these goals, modern medical devices need to be applied more widely in China's hospitals. According to a recent official medical equipment survey, China has 330 magnetic resonance imaging units, 2,300 computed tomography scanners, 300 linear accelerators, in addition to about 2,500 colour Ultrasonic-B scanners and 13 Gamma Knives.
As living standards rise, China's 1.3bn population will increasingly demand high quality medical care. The proportion of senior citizens is set to soar over the next two decades, which will place an even greater strain on medical services. The government has set specific plans to deal with increased life expectancy to 73-74 by 2010, while at the same time seeking to reduce childbirth-related mortality.
These targets will encourage the better financed hospitals to buy new equipment, urged on by government policy that is committed upgrading health standards.
This article was written by Jay Rothstein and Sun Yu. Jay is president of China Venture Advisors, a US based company that specialises in facilitating market entry for US companies to China. Sun Yu is a research assistant with CVA. Website: www.China-Venture.com.