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IBM Opens China Healthcare Unit To Pursue $124B Market

As the Chinese government pledges to spend $124 billion on healthcare services in the next two years, IBM has opened a Healthcare Industry Solution Lab in Beijing to tap into China's absolutely enormous healthcare market: IBM says that in 2008 alone, China experienced more than 5 billion requests for emergency medical care. Even with a population of 1.3 billion, that's a lot of records to track.
As the Chinese government pledges to spend $124 billion on healthcare services in the next two years, IBM has opened a Healthcare Industry Solution Lab in Beijing to tap into China's absolutely enormous healthcare market: IBM says that in 2008 alone, China experienced more than 5 billion requests for emergency medical care. Even with a population of 1.3 billion, that's a lot of records to track.IBM described the mission of its new Healthcare Industry lab as working "with healthcare providers to adopt digital medical records, which improve patient care while reducing cost and medical errors." Referring to the 5.1 billion emergency-care requests last year, IBM said the cost for those outpatient and emergency visits was $124 billion - the same figure the government says it will invest to "make healthcare services safer and more affordable" by 2011.

While ERH projects are complex no matter where they're undertaken, China's desire for a nationwide EHR system faces an extra set of challenges from the country's large and growing base of hospitals that practice traditional Chinese medicine rather than modern medicine. IBM said that between 2000 and 2005, the number of hospitals practicing traditional Chinese medicine grew by about 12% from 2,654 to 3,009, while the number of students pursuing the traditional approach soared by 500% from 77,000 to 385,000.

IBM said its goal in China is to work with the government and the healthcare industry to develop "collaborative, coordinated health systems based on open industry standards" that will pull integrate data from currently isolated systems to allow practitioners to make better-informed decisions. IBM said the data it will seek to pull together via the EHR project include "such as family and personal medical histories, lab results, diagnoses and financial information."

That last item seemed a little odd - what difference does a patient's "financial information" make in determining the best course of treatment? We've got a request in to IBM for more information on that one.

But clearly, China represents not only a potentially lucrative market for IBM but also a vast challenge for the Chinese government and any outside partners looking to help create significant healthcare solutions. Beyond the need to tie together two types of medicine - modern and fast-growing traditional - and the statistics that show an average of four emergency-care visits per every on of China's 1.3 billion citizen per year - IBM said the country's overall healthcare infrastructure is already under great stress: "Much of China faces inaccessible and expensive medical care as large hospitals are overburdened with patients and community healthcare providers remain stagnant."

Our own country's EHR challenges can sometimes appear intractable, but even this cursory look at the problems faced by China shows an even more complicated situation. So it should be quite interesting to follow IBM's progress efforts in China and see if how those approaches map to what's going on there, or whether IBM will find that different countries and different cultures require markedly different approaches for healthcare systems.

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