Cancer is on the rise in China. In 2014, the country saw 2.3 million deaths from the disease and 3.8 million new cases, accounting for more than one fifth of premature deaths and more than a quarter of new cancer cases worldwide. With the global trend of aging societies also affecting China, non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, are growing in prevalence creating a burden for health and financial systems. However, from 2001 to 2016 only 30 percent of the innovative medicines were available to Chinese patients.
The topic of cancer in the public domain
The plight of Chinese cancer patients has even made it to the big screen. “Dying to survive” tells the story of a man who smuggles cheap generic leukemia medication from India in an effort to save patients who could not easily access the treatment they needed in China. Innovative pharmaceutical companies are portrayed critically in the movie and are reproached for seemingly acting in the interest of making profits.
While public debate generally criticizes the limited access to appropriate medicines and addresses cost challenges, some voices do acknowledge the need for innovative medicines. The Premier of China’s State Council, Li Keqiang, has been calling for cheaper and more accessible cancer drugs for patients.
However, the government has also shown a balanced approach and addresses both sides of the discussion. This shows that they understand the social contract of health policy: innovation must be valued at one point in time before cheaper, generic versions of drugs are sold. Measures implemented under Healthy China 2030 aim to improve the health care system, broaden countrywide medical service, and financial coverage. In this initiative, efforts have clearly been made to strike a balance between the promotion of both innovative and generic medication.
Healthy China 2030 shaping cancer policy
Recent healthcare reforms made under Healthy China 2030 have already begun to shape current cancer policy. Accordingly, preventive measures are set to take a central role: the government now advocates for healthy lifestyles through awareness campaigns as well as investment into promoting early diagnosis through regular checkups. This is addressed in China’s three-year action plan for cancer prevention and treatment (2015-2017) and the country’s chronic disease prevention and treatment mid-long term plan (2017-2025).
However, when it comes to cancer prevention and treatment, there is room for improvement. There is still a lack of diagnosis through early screenings as well limited treatment options. If health equity is one of the aims of Healthy China 2030, it is crucial that the country builds a healthcare system that also promotes innovative medicines, not only generics.
Read more about China’s strategy to tackle cancer here:
This article was co-written by Verena Kantel and Qing Lv. Verena Kantel, Head Pharma Health Policy International at Bayer, is also China-Speaker of the German Healthcare Partnership (GHP). She is a trained lawyer and before joining Bayer, she worked on foreign trade law and politics for the BDI, the Federation of German Industries. Qing Lv is a healthcare policy researcher at Bayer Liaison Office, Greater China. She previously worked for the Chinese Academy of Science for anti-cancer drug development in Beijing.