I wrote recently about the cancer conundrum patients and caregivers face as survival and cure rates increase.

This week, I’m taking a look at China to better understand global shifts in healthcare and how companies and organizations can address them.

The idea came from Alice G. Walton’s great Forbes post summarizing two studies (abstracts here and here) in The Lancet that document the increase in non-communicable diseases – including dementia, heart disease, and COPD – the country is seeing as its economy and wealth explode. This is even more amazing when you consider that China is pushing for 250 million of its citizens to live in an urban setting in just 12 years.

The fact that this data shows the leading causes of “loss of health” in China have changed so drastically in only 20 years is remarkable. Just look at these stats:

  • Neonatal and infant mortality decreased 59% and 80%, respectively
  • Communicable diseases such as lower respiratory infection and childhood mortality from diarrhea decreased by 90%
  • Life expectancy is up, from 69.3 to 75.7 years, rising 8%. This is even more incredible when you consider that:
    • U.S. life expectancy is 78.64 years and has only increased 10% over the last 50 years
    • Life expectancy for men and women in the U.S. is getting shorter, and recently was ranked lowest and second lowest of 17 developed countries, according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine
    • Chinese people lost the fewest years of life to disability of any of the G20 countries

As Ms. Walton wrote so well, this means that in China, people’s individual behaviors, not the spread of contagious diseases, are the biggest threats to their health over the long term.

It’s clear that better access to care in China has played a role in diminishing horrible diseases and conditions like pre-mature births and congenital anomalies. But similar to the challenges created by longer cancer survival rates, as China and other developing nations gain better incomes and urbanization, they face new health challenges. These will be made more difficult by the fact that many health issues, such as heart disease, take years to develop, often lack noticeable symptoms, and are based heavily on diet.

So, how can companies and organizations engage health stakeholders in China? I asked Chris Deri, WCG president, to weigh in. Chris spent nearly three years working with major companies in Beijing. Here are four ideas on changes that organizations can affect:

  • Remember your audience, and keep it custom: High cholesterol, stroke, and obesity may often be newer concepts for Chinese compared to the U.S., where they’ve been drilled into our consciousness for years. Therefore, unbranded disease education and awareness campaigns are very important. Organizations willing to engage on a local level and develop custom education and engagement strategies for this massive market will stand to benefit as access to care continues to improve. Organizations also need to help Chinese patients understand that modern medicine doesn’t mean miracle pills. Health literacy is urgently needed.
  • Show patients why physicians matter: Healthcare spending is increasing at an incredible rate. As of 2011, Beijing planned to up its per-capita funding for basic health services to 25 yuan, or $3.8, per capita, up 67% from a year earlier. Yet patients have never been angrier about healthcare and the difficulties of accessing it. It’s even resulting in patients committing terrible violence and crime, including murders, against physicians. Organizations that help provide continued training for physicians and make patients more literate about modern diseases, can make a big difference in better, safer care for all.
  • Get mobile: As of 2012, China had at least one billion mobile phone accounts. Providing health information on mobile platforms – both via text messaging and via richer content such as apps, will be a crucial way to reach patients and physicians.
  • Eliminate the stigma: Partner with organizations that can help decrease stigmas associated with these new diseases. This is particularly true for dementia and Alzheimer’s, which affect 9.19 and 5.69 million Chinese respectively. In 1990, the numbers were 3.68 million and 1.93 million, respectively. South Korea’s already done a good job with this, as demonstrated by this remarkable program. Some companies are already doing great work in this area, whether it’s partnering with national mental health organizations to improve patient care or contributing much-needed research dollars to further advance scientific innovation.

China’s prosperity will clearly affect its citizen’s long-term health. Organizations willing to engage on a local level and develop custom communications strategies for this massive market will stand to benefit as access to care continues to improve.