Health and Healthcare Systems

3 smart and green innovations making China's healthcare system more sustainable

Technology like AI is helping China's healthcare system meet growing demand while keeping sustainability issues in mind.

Technology like AI is helping China's healthcare system meet growing demand while keeping sustainability issues in mind. Image: iStockphoto/nzphotonz

Ling Liu
Executive Vice President and Chief Region Leader, Royal Philips
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions
  • As China’s population ages, the accessibility and affordability of healthcare are under pressure, creating a need for new and innovative ways of delivering care.
  • To address such challenges, China wants to modernize industries – including healthcare – through “new productive forces” that combine quality, efficiency and sustainability.
  • Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and other medical technologies could enable healthcare providers to deliver better care to more patients in an environmentally sustainable way.

Nearly 28% of Chinese citizens will be over 60 years old by 2040, due to longer life expectancy and declining fertility rates, according to the World Health Organization. Unsurprisingly then, demand for healthcare keeps rising, as does the cost, but healthcare professionals in China are in short supply, especially in rural areas. The human toll is significant: patients often face long queues for hospital care, while one systematic review estimated the healthcare job burnout rate in China to be as much as 77%.

Healthcare in China has benefitted from rapid technological advancements and vastly improved infrastructure in recent years. But with one of the world’s fastest growing elderly populations, China’s healthcare system is facing a growing gap between demand and supply. This is making it increasingly difficult to provide the high-quality and affordable care that people need.

The resulting strain on both healthcare professionals and patients is unsustainable. We need new ways of delivering care that can improve efficiency, expand healthcare access, and create a better work environment for staff.

In addition, Philips’ Future Health Index 2023 survey shows younger healthcare professionals in China are also calling for more environmentally friendly ways of delivering care. Almost half (46%) see strong policies on sustainability as an important factor when choosing where to work. This eco-conscious attitude is encouraging in light of healthcare’s large carbon footprint, which – surprisingly – exceeds that of the aviation sector.

These two ambitions – to keep healthcare accessible for all and to make it environmentally sustainable – cannot be viewed in isolation. In fact, they must go hand in hand. By tapping into the power of AI and other emerging technologies, we can address the growing demand for healthcare services while reducing the sector’s carbon footprint at the same time.

This belief is a cornerstone of the country's Healthy China 2030 plan. It also aligns well with the Chinese government’s commitment to unlock new productive forces by harnessing the power of innovation and sustainable practices.

How, then, do we turn this into a reality? These three real-world examples show how technological innovation can improve productivity and access to more sustainable healthcare:

1. AI-enabled CT imaging helps save time and costs

Computerized tomography (CT) is widely used to obtain detailed internal images of a patient’s body. It can play a crucial role in diagnosing cancer, cardiovascular conditions and other diseases.

Large patient volumes and lack of experienced physicians can create delays in scheduling scans and interpreting the results, however, impacting patient care and outcomes. Since traditional CT is not a universal detection method, patients often need additional types of medical imaging, such as magnetic resonance (MR) imaging and positron emission tomography (PET). This adds to the overall cost and patient burden.

The latest advancements in AI can improve image quality and workflows, helping physicians diagnose and monitor patients more confidently. AI can also free them from tedious, time-consuming tasks, allowing them to spend more time focusing on their patients.

Functional CT scans can also now generate a lot more clinical information that was traditionally generated from MR and PET scans. This reduces the need for multiple exams for some specific diseases and could potentially save up to 90% in costs, according to research published in the Chinese Journal of Radiology.

China's healthcare system is seeing multiple benefits due to new technology in areas like scans and imaging.
China's healthcare system is seeing multiple benefits due to new technology in areas like scans and imaging. Image: Philips, 2024

2. Virtually helium-free MR helps expand care to more locations

MR imaging remains an essential tool for diagnosing many types of diseases, despite significant advancements in combining information from various imaging tools with CT scans. However, the use of liquid helium in MR scanners comes with environmental concerns – helium is a non-renewable resource with limited global supply. This poses a significant challenge to the sustainability of MR services as populations age and demand for MR imaging grows.

Philips has developed a fully sealed magnet that supports the transition to sustainable, helium-free MR operations. It requires only 7 litres of helium – 0.5% of that needed for our conventional MR systems. Not only does this reduce the reliance on helium, saving 1.9 million litres of helium worldwide to date, it also simplifies the installation of equipment. This means hospitals can expand MR services to patients in previously inaccessible areas, including by delivering services via mobile trucks to remote regions in China.

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3. Making ultrasound smart and green benefits patients and planet

In cardiac care, ultrasound is an indispensable tool to help visualize and evaluate a patient’s heart function. In fact, it is now often the first imaging tool used to diagnose patients. Getting measurements can be time-consuming, however, and the results can vary between operators.

AI-enabled innovations can help physicians shorten exam time and interpretation, while reducing variability. Also, by embedding circular economy strategies into the design and life cycle of ultrasound systems, we can create more sustainable and energy-efficient products to minimize waste. This includes using components that are easy to replace and upgrade.

This approach gives healthcare professionals access to the latest technological advancements while simultaneously reducing their environmental impact.

Have you read?

These are just a few examples of how smart and green innovation can go hand in hand within the healthcare sector to benefit professionals, patients and the planet. This could form the foundation of a value-driven healthcare system focused on quality, productivity and sustainability.

While the specifics of China’s healthcare system are unique, many other countries face similar challenges and could benefit from the same strategies. Not only will this help keep healthcare accessible and affordable around the world for generations to come, it could also help reduce waste and preserve our Earth’s precious resources.

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