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How can China care for its ageing population?

 

The elderly play a pivotal role in China’s society and economy. Demographic developments, however, are threatening to undermine their key position, by changing where, how and by whom the elderly are cared for. To safeguard this tradition, China needs to embrace technological innovation and adapt the delivery of medical care to a group that is a link to its past, the foundation of its present and a pathway to its future.

 

Respect and love for the elderly is considered a key virtue in China. Children are expected to take care of their parents in old age and grandparents tend to be the primary caretakers of their grandchildren. It is common in China for three generations to live under the same roof, allowing young couples to have a career and children at the same time.

 

This valuable tradition is now under threat. The number of elderly is growing at a breakneck pace and their average age is rising. The 65+ population is forecast to grow to 167 million by 2020, accounting for 11.5% of the population or nearly double what it was in 1995.

 

This rise is set to peak around 2030, but already the pressure is being felt by China’s adults, for whom it is virtually impossible to financially and practically take care of their parents. Retirement and nursing homes are still relatively uncommon and especially in rural areas the healthcare infrastructure is unable to provide optimal care for the elderly.

 

In addition, the elderly are more likely to suffer from chronic non-communicable diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, which have become more prevalent due to China’s rapid industrialization and urbanization. These chronic illnesses account for 85% of all deaths in China and require some 70% of medical resources, putting great stress on the health system as a whole. It is clear the healthcare system needs to adapt.

 

China’s government is already taking positive steps. It is increasing access to healthcare by broadening the reach of its health insurance schemes and increasing spending on training nurses. It is also involving the private sector, for example by inviting them to build private hospitals or collaborating on innovation. Philips, for example, is working with the Chinese Society of Cardiology to build the China National Cardiovascular Data Repository, which will help doctors conduct more clinical research, work more productively and provide better healthcare to China’s 270 million heart patients.

 

The importance of the private sector is also underlined by the decision of Chinese IT giants to enter the healthcare industry, specifically to leverage their big data and cloud computing expertise to offer health solutions. This in particular points to the future. Healthcare professionals and healthcare systems need to be integrated across the entire healthcare continuum, which begins with healthy living and disease prevention and moves to diagnosis, treatment and eventually to providing care at home.

 

Outside of China, this integration has shown to increase the quality of care and manage costs. In the US, predictive analytics and data visualization are lowering the length of stay in intensive care. By combining actionable insights with wearable devices, like pendants for elderly patients, such analytics enable health systems to identify potential health issues in real time. In the Netherlands, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients wear diagnostic devices that feed their data into two cloud-based applications, allowing doctors to reduce the number of hospital readmissions.

 

The future of China’s healthcare requires more than just technology. China, which understands that the elderly have a crucial role to play in society, would do well to seek ways to empower the elderly and not just manage their health costs. If the country embraces connected healthcare it will be able to continue it powerful tradition of respecting and caring for the elderly in the years to come.

 

The Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2015 is taking place in Dalian, China, from 9-11 September.

 

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Author: Patrick Kung, Member of the Executive Committee of Royal Philips and CEO of Greater China

 

Image: An elderly exercises in Beijing, October 17, 2013. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic