Entrepreneurs point toward innovation in China’s health services

entrepreneurs panel (L to R): Wei Siang Yu, founder of Borderless Healthcare Group; Lee Ligang Zhang, chairman and CEO of iKang Healthcare Group; and Fred Hung-Jen Yang, chairman of Missioncare, Inc. discuss healthcare innovation at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Center.

A middle class is emerging in China, and simultaneously, its population is rapidly aging. These two phenomena are impacting the country’s traditional consumer habits, including spending on healthcare. Experts say private-sector services are one important part of the future of China’s healthcare system, and perhaps also a sign of what’s to come for other countries in the region. Entrepreneurs can provide innovative services that cater widely to consumers and support a shift toward integrated care for health promotion and long-term management of chronic disease, also supplementing resources available in traditional public facilities.

Three experts visited the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and shared perspectives on those trends at the panel discussion, “Healthcare Entrepreneurs in East Asia: Innovations in Primary Care and Beyond,” hosted by the Asia Health Policy Program.

Historically, healthcare services in China have been almost entirely government-run. A patient would go to a public clinic, stand in a queue, and receive treatment within a few hours – being referred elsewhere if additional treatment was required.

Now, the private sector is growing, based on the promise of improved care and an enhanced experience, both removing the waiting line and ushering in new technologies. The government has also issued several policies encouraging “social capital” investment in health and fitness services.

The private sector for preventative care services now holds around fifteen percent of the entire marketplace in China, and “is expected to get much bigger over the next five years,” said Lee Ligang Zhang, the founding chairman and chief executive officer of iKang, a healthcare group based in Beijing.

Zhang oversees the company’s operation of 50 self-owned healthcare centers and an extended network of 300 affiliates. iKang is one of many groups catering to a growing consumer base of corporate workers and senior managers seeking care outside of the public system.

Comparative view

Increased development of premium healthcare facilities is not only emerging in China, but also in neighboring Taiwan. Since 1995, Taiwan implemented a national health insurance system, and has been lauded for its success in service provision.

Taiwan transitioned its healthcare market to universal coverage. Under this system, a patient can essentially “shop around” and select where to go for services, most of which are covered under the country’s insurance collective system at public or private providers.

“On average, every Taiwanese goes to see a doctor 14 times a year, compared to five times a year in the United States, and two times [a year] in China,” said Dr. Fred Hun-Jean Yang, a physician and chairman of MissionCare, Inc.

Such numbers reflect the higher availability of services compared to China, he said. Even as a small island, Taiwan has over 15,000 clinics and the price for services is generally affordable for the average citizen. Despite this availability of public and private services, Taiwan’s newer healthcare entrepreneurs seek to fill a market demand shaped by similar factors as in China. Yang says technology and the efficiency of the private sector healthcare system is attracting new consumers.

Missioncare is headquartered in northern Taiwan’s Taoyuan City and consists of four community hospitals with a larger network of clinics across the country as well as coordinated long-term care services for the elderly and those with chronic disease. The group has already expanded into China, and plans to integrate healthcare innovations, such as wearable monitoring and mobile payment.

Patient-centric service

Chinese citizens, particularly those with greater expendable income, are more willing to pay out-of-pocket for an improved patient experience, the panelists said.

“The consumer psyche is important,” said Dr. Wei Siang Yu, the founder of the Borderless Healthcare Group (BHG), a group of companies based in Singapore that focuses largely on health telecommunications.

One perspective is that consumers desire a “high-end” environment made possible by tailored design aesthetics and effective branding. Guided by this trend, Yu, a business executive and physician by training, started the “smart cities, smart homes” initiative at BHG.

BHG is now launching an incubator model in Shanghai, which combines intelligent design aesthetics with patient care, and is planning to localize such centers across China. The model is referred to as an “experience center,” rather than a hospital or clinic, and healthcare services – examinations, operations and value-added activities like wellness and education activities – are all centralized in one location.

Looking ahead, Yu said healthcare is likely to move even further away from the traditional hospital setting, and more toward experiential and home-based care models.