4 Reasons U.S. EMR Firms Won’t Try China

Posted on October 23, 2013 I Written By

James Ritchie is a freelance writer with a focus on health care. His experience includes eight years as a staff writer with the Cincinnati Business Courier, part of the American City Business Journals network. Twitter @HCwriterJames.

If you have something to sell, chances are you’ve thought about selling it in China.

With a population of 1.35 billion, it’s become an attractive market for U.S. companies pushing everything from athletic shoes to light trucks to Tide. Given the natural limits of their home market, you’d assume that American EMR firms would eventually size up China’s nascent health IT scene.

And it’s likely they have. In a report a few years ago, 100 percent of vendors surveyed told the consulting firm Accenture that they saw global markets as an opportunity in the long term.

But health IT doesn’t export quite as easily as Pringles and KFC. I’ve seen China’s healthcare system up close several times, and if you ask me, making headway in the world’s most populous nation will be beyond difficult.

China, which is in the midst of its own health care reform, could certainly be tempting for companies such as Epic, McKesson and Cerner. As Benjamin Shobert wrote for Forbes, the country in 2009 extended basic health coverage to 97 percent of its citizens. It also promised to build 31,000 hospitals, upgrade 5,000 existing ones and train 150,000 new primary-care doctors.

McKinsey & Co. last year said health care spending in China would grow to $1 trillion in 2020 from $375 million in 2011.

Meanwhile, U.S. EMR companies are going to need new markets to conquer. Estimates of how much growth potential is left are many and varied. But no matter how you look at it, at some point every American healthcare organization of any size will have an EMR. Millennium Research Group last month predicted declining EMR-industry revenue from this year on because of “market saturation.”

Of course, plenty of IT firms, including Oracle and IBM, have a major presence in China. But the China market won’t happen in a significant way for U.S. health IT companies any time soon, and here’s why:

  • China’s healthcare is different. The private physician’s office that Americans are used to is more or less nonexistent. You go to a hospital-based clinic and see the doctor who’s available. Patient privacy hasn’t taken hold, so there could be other clinic-goers and family members milling about near — or in — your exam room. Chinese traditional medicine is practiced alongside the “Western” variety. Even with insurance, you typically pay up front and get reimbursed later. A U.S.-centric EMR would not map neatly onto China’s workflows. There’s an overview of China’s system here. I’ve written about a Chinese dental clinic here.
  • No one understands China’s health IT. OK, I’m sure some people do, and I hope they comment. But it’s a challenge. The health information firm KLAS Enterprises isn’t even attempting to cover China. A KLAS executive vice president, Jared Peterson, told Modern Healthcare, “The Chinese market, that’s a big mystery.” Meanwhile, Accenture omitted China from its 2010 report “Overview of International EMR/EHR Markets” because of “conflicting opinions of overall EMR maturity.”
  • The language barrier will be formidable. Epic CEO Judith Faulkner told Modern Healthcare how her company had adapted its system for another language. “We’ve only done it once, for Dutch,” she said in January 2012. “It’s a lot of mapping. It’s a task, but it hasn’t been that bad of a task.” But Dutch is not Chinese, and Chinese doesn’t use the Roman alphabet. I’m betting that when you throw Chinese characters into the mix, the conversion will be “that bad of a task” and then some.
  • Cloud-based systems could raise security issues. Some experts expect cloud-based services to play a significant role as health IT spreads to developing countries. But according to a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report, “Regulations requiring foreign firms to enter into joint cooperative arrangements with Chinese companies in order to offer cloud computing services may jeopardize the foreign firms’ information security arrangements.”

It’s worth mentioning that three years ago, China was mentioned as Cerner announced plans to develop global markets. It wanted to get into emerging regions before its U.S.-based competitors did.

There’s not much sign of life now in any China-related plans the company might have had, though. According to a message from Chad Haynes, managing director for Cerner Asia, on the firm’s website: “We look forward to improving the health of communities in ASEAN, China, and beyond.”

In the case of China, that could be a while.