Boosted by improved standards of living and the development of medical infrastructures, Chinese citizens’ health and life expectancy improved drastically over the last thirty years. But the relationship the population developed to health is complex and has been impacted by repeated incidents in the fields of food safety and access to health services. This article presents some of the main specifics of the Chinese relation to health as observed in recent market research studies conducted among citizens and doctors in large urban areas of the country.
A vision of health deeply rooted in local culture and tradition
How health is approached is a central element of the Chinese culture and way of life. It is greatly influenced by the Taoist philosophy which encourages respecting nature’s life cycles and a nutrition approach that balances yin and yang. But what is really different from what can be observed in most other countries, Western ones in particular, is a holistic, enlarged, inclusive vision of health.
In this vision, mental health and physical health are deeply intertwined, much more associated to one another in people’s mind than elsewhere. The body is approached « outside in » but also « inside out » with the notion that what feeds external signs is before all the inside. In this way, physical appearance, for example skin tone, is handled as much via nutrition and lifestyle (sleep, no sun exposure..) than via cosmetic products applied to the surface of the skin.
In the posture of the Chinese, the notions of prevention, anticipation and harmony are more prevalent than the notion of curing what is not going well. Rhythm of life, nutrition, traditional medicine, feng shui, etc. all contribute to this approach. The population is therefore naturally in a position of anticipated management of one’s health, more than Western people who tend to approach health via a curative angle.
The impact of China’s development model
The rapid growth and opening of China to the outside these past thirty years have had a significant impact on the way citizens approach heath. Pollution and the effects of the environment on one’s organism have become major preoccupations for the Chinese who have become the world’s most worried population about the state of the environment. 53% of them even consider that « the effects of society on environment are so great that it is not possible for people to have an impact at the individual level » (GlobeScan 2012). One simple reason to that: large Chinese cities are amongst the most polluted of the planet and their inhabitants experience the consequences in their daily life. For them, the degradation of the environment is not a theoretical concept but rather an experienced reality with very concrete consequences: micro-particles concentration in the air forcing people to wear masks, water improper for consumption, developing allergies, etc.
The relation of the general public to health is also confronted to Western influence and a lifestyle model – individualized food portions, high in meat, the development of leisure activities, motorized commute, etc. – which impacts local habits. This is considered by the population as both a danger – perturbing ancient habits that have proven benefits – and the opportunity to solve or bypass certain problems specific to the Chinese society, for example in the field of food safety.
This vision is confirmed by doctors who see in two typical signs of the developing consumption society – the rise in pollution and in stress levels – the factors which consequences on citizens’ health will most rise over the next 10 years.
Food safety is a very sensitive issue
Following a number of crisis associated to contaminated food products over the past few years, Chinese consumers show more and more distrust towards the quality of what they eat. They are particularly careful about meat, seafood, fruits and vegetable. And a survey by the Chinese Association for Sciences and Technology shows that 70% of them think genetically modified food is dangerous for heath.
In sensitive segments such as baby food and dairy products, consumer from major cities turn more and more to foreign brands whom they associate to safer production processes and ingredients. Local brands keep an edge when it comes to proximity with consumers and having products that fit local taste.
Here again, the vision of health professionals echoes that of consumers. A very large majority of doctors (77%) consider that the presence of harmful ingredients in food will represent a serious threat to the people’s health in the years to come. This level of concern makes China stand out among 9 countries spread over 3 continents in which Ifop conducted a survey on health concerns.
Tensions about the national health system
Cases of medical staff being physically attacked by patients appear regularly in the news and are being discussed abundantly on social media. As a matter of fact a certain tension has developed between patients and doctors over the past few years, primarily associated to the opacity of the health system, which reforms are badly communicated, as well as to hectic schedules in hospitals.
As a typical example a patient with skin infection recently interviewed by Ifop in Shanghai described: « I don’t think the doctor paid enough attention to my condition. I waited an hour and a half to meet him, we had a 5 minute discussion, he barely checked me out and he handed me a prescription without explaining it. »
Even if the Chinese go to a family doctor on a day-to-day basis, hospitals are the place of choice when one is really ill. Over-attendance of these combined with limited resources contribute to growing tensions.
An evolution towards digital health
In order to take control of their health and alleviate their worries consumers search for information on internet. They share their experiences on numerous discussion platforms or interact directly with local or foreign doctors on dedicated sites such as www.haodf.com
The Chinese are very much advanced when it comes to digital habits: very active on social media they are among the world leaders when it comes to e-commerce and mobile application usage. This affinity with digital tools translates in the field of health into the development of online purchases such as on the dedicated Tmall site www.yao.tmall.com and growing usage of personal health applications such as Lifesense.
Major healthcare players now ought to take this aspect into consideration to optimize how they communicate with their audience and develop services that bring substantial value to consumers.
Opportunities for French players
In this Chinese health landscape, French companies, especially those in the food industry, services to patients and connected devices have great opportunities to meet the local public. They should not hesitate to display the guarantees of harmlessness and efficacy to which the Chinese are very sensitive. And as always in China, a very diverse country geographically and socio-economically, they should design a segmented approach to their market if they want to be really successful.
Article written by Christophe Jourdain and Chunxiao Huo – Originally published in French in CCIFC’s magazine Connexions