This year the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, approved a new five-year plan—a blueprint outlining key social and economic developmental initiatives, which it has been doing every five years since 1957. China’s 13th five-year plan has as its key goals a move away from old heavy industry and construction to a modern information-intensive infrastructure, bridging welfare gaps between rural and urban areas, developing green energy technology, and better distributing the fruits of economic growth.
Our question is what will this plan bring in the area of biomedical engineering? To answer that question, we’ve taken a closer look at the stated goals of the Chinese government, and its actions thus far through analysis of surveys and data.
Challenges and Opportunities
Biomedical engineering (BME) and the medical device industry show a remarkable rise in China, perhaps as a result of previous five-year plans which have emphasized these areas. According to the data of 2015 China Blue Book of Development of Medical Device Industry, during the 12th five-year plan, China focused intently on nurturing medical companies and developing medical equipment, regarding it as an emerging industry. The number of medical equipment manufacturers climbed to 17,211 in 2015, up from 14,603 in 2011. Manufacturers include MINDRAY, SHINVA, LEPU Medical, and WEGO. Medical devices manufactured in China include sophisticated high-end medical equipment such as large X-ray machines, CTs, magnetic resonance imaging devices, color B-mode ultrasounds, intravascular stents, and artificial joints.
In 2011, the Ministry of Science and Technology published the Specific Plan of Medical Device Technology Industry, regarded as a seminal document for the medical device industry. Recently, related governmental departments, including the Chinese Food and Drug Administration, the National Health and Family Planning Commission of PRC, and the National Development and Reform Commission have introduced similar documents, regulations, and rules. They not only attach importance to the development of China’s medical device industry from a strategic perspective but pledge strong support on policies, funding, human resources, and techniques. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China has invested 489,782 billion yuan in the medical device industry in 2014, which is higher than any year before (data in 2015 has not been published yet).
Recently, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, has proposed the Four-Pronged Comprehensive Strategy. First is the idea of building a moderately prosperous society whose foundation is health care. Because health care is such a pressing need in China, these goals fit in well with societal needs.
According to statistics, there are nearly 260 million people in China who have a major disease. That, combined with the fact that the population is aging, (the number of people 60 years old or older has reached 202 million) creates a strong imperative to address health care. In addition, there are an estimated 80 million disabled people in China. China, therefore, is now facing an exceedingly severe problem. Generally, China’s health care is plagued by difficult and expensive medical treatment and uneven medical resources, which further stunts development of our country.
How can we address these issues? So far, the cruel reality is an uneven distribution of medical resources. Based on the National data report, during the period of the 12th five-year plan, China spent 7 to 8 billion dollars on importing medical equipment each year. We rely on the importation of high-tech medical equipment, which leads to a catastrophic expenditure. It is clear that the only solution is promoting the domestic medical equipment industry and modifying the uneven distribution of health care through technological and model innovation. Mainstream medical devices need to be made in China. At the same time, we need to force the entire health care industry to develop beyond just the medical device industry to the entire field of BME.
The Plan and Objectives
The overall objective of the 13th five-year plan is to build a moderately prosperous society before 2020. As part of this objective, the goal has been set to deepen economic reform, allowing the market to play a decisive role in resource configuration. Once the 13th five-year plan ascertains the basic ideas, it will propose a series of criteria on economic and social development, including GDP, and offer a number of major projects. Admittedly, there is an almost decade-old gap between the current development status of the BME market in China and the international advanced level. However, fast economic growth has been accompanied by the rapid development of electronic technology, computer technology, and biomaterials science, as well as BME. The Chinese government is vigorously supporting the bio-industry whose rate of industrial output value is above 20% during these years: in the 11th five-year period, the output value of Chinese bio-industry jumped from 600 billion to 1.6 trillion yuan, while it develops into 4 trillion in the 12th five-year target.
The National Recommendation for the 13th five-year plan in Economy and Social Development indicates that we should persist in innovating and developing by focusing on improving quality and efficiency. The fifth point that the National Recommendation raises is that we should create intelligent manufacturing engineering by constructing new manufacturing systems, and facilitate the growth of industries, including a new generation of information and communication technology, high-end CNC machine tools and robotics, aerospace equipment, marine engineering equipment and high-tech ships, advanced rail transportation equipment, energy-saving and new energy vehicles, power equipment, agricultural equipment, new materials, bio-medicine and high-performance industrial and medical equipment.
To promote the capitalization and industrialization of these scientific and technological achievements, the Recommendation puts forward some new proposals, including promoting interdisciplinary collaborative innovation, and advancing the integration of technology and economy. Moreover, we hope to build and enhance the platform for technology and intellectual property transactions, along with innovative financial models that would take us from experimental study to pilot production to final output.
The Main Tasks of Innovation
Obviously, innovation, the core of holistic national development, is the primary impetus to create improvement. Scientific and technological innovation play a leading role in overall innovation. The medical equipment industry, which is a strategic point to guide our national transformation and structural adjustment and an important national force in technological innovation, has the important contribution of stimulating domestic demand and improving the living standards of the population. And it can integrate multi-disciplinary subjects, driving the development of technological innovation and manufacturing. It brings numerous unprecedented opportunities. Five categories of medical devices need focus: digital diagnostic equipment; tissue repair and renewable materials; molecular diagnostic instruments and reagents; artificial organs and life-support equipment; and health monitoring equipment. In addition, high-end medical imaging products, combined with 3-D printing personalized treatment equipment, and medical biomaterials, especially renewable repair materials, are likely to become areas of focus during the 13th five-year plan period.
Digital medical equipment is not only the most important basic equipment in the health care and public health system, but also the core engine of development. It is strategic, catalytic, and crescive. To enhance the competitiveness of China’s digital medical equipment, promote its industrial development, and fully implement the tasks in the National Long-term Science and Technology Development Plan (2006-2020) and Made in China 2025, digital diagnostic equipment R&D has been taken as one of the key projects. According to the whole-chain deployment and the principles of integrative implementation, the Plan sets four tasks including the forefront of innovation and common technology, major equipment development, application solutions for research, and demonstration and evaluation. In 2016, there are 105 universities offering professional BME courses of undergraduate education in China, an increase of 6.06% over 2014 and 2015.
Although high-tech digital medical equipment is still a central concern of the 13th five-year plan, integration of diagnosis and treatment is an important trend for medical devices, especially for cancer treatment, image-guided radiotherapy, and image-guided minimally invasive therapy. Thus, they gain a lot of support from the 13th five-year plan. Radiotherapy systems and high-end imaging equipment were an important foundation of the 12th five-year plan and will be continually funded in this five-year plan.
The encouraging news showing in national data is as the number of patents, inventions, research, and projects in the medical device industrial grows, real income has grown accordingly. In addition, from 2016 onwards, the state has issued several special programs such as accurate medical research, research on biomedical materials and repair of tissues and organs, prevention and research on major chronic non-communicable disease, and mobile health. These are likely to bring tangible results in the area of absorbable materials, especially bone screws and bone plates, the development of the in vitro diagnostic device industry, intelligent medicine, and so on.
If it is carried forth as it is laid out, there is no doubt that the introduction of the 13th five-year plan will have a substantial and profound impact on BME’s development. This is a great opportunity to advance our independent research and development capabilities, as well as boost the presence of BME in China.