Asian Health Care's IT Injection

The region has begun harnessing technology to boost the industry, showing its potential to lead the world in such innovation

By Bruce Einhorn

One of the big worries among American information-technology executives is that the U.S. is in danger of losing its edge as other countries, especially in Asia, build up their high-tech infrastructure and leapfrog past the West. Indeed, in some areas the question isn't whether the U.S. is going to fall behind, but whether it can catch up.

Take telecommunications. Measured in sheer number of cellular users, the U.S. lost its No.1 position years ago to China, which now has more than 300 million people chatting on their mobile phones. That's understandable. There are more than 1.3 billion Chinese, after all. But when it comes to cellular services, the U.S. also lags behind Japan and South Korea, both of which have operators that are quickly signing up new customers for third-generation cell service.


  Surely the U.S. is safely ahead of Asia in other industries -- health care, for instance. The U.S. system has its problems, as President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry have detailed during the current campaign for the White House, but American health care is among the best in the world, its hospitals some of the most cutting edge, right?

Not according to Mark N. Blatt, a former family physician who joined Intel (INTC ) in 2000. As the chipmaker's manager of health-care strategies, Blatt is in charge of efforts to make hospitals worldwide more IT-savvy. Blatt recently came to Asia to meet with health-care officials in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand. When I met with him recently in Hong Kong, he told me was stunned by the progress that some countries are making in using IT to improve how doctors and nurses do their jobs.

When Blatt spoke to me in Hong Kong, he had just returned from a visit to Southern China's Guangdong province. Blatt went to Foshan, an industrial city in the Pearl River Delta that's widely speculated to have been the home of China's first SARS case, back in 2002. The disease's outbreak spooked the Chinese government, making it realize that it had to invest in an IT infrastructure that would allow hospitals to monitor illnesses more easily. The aim would be to prevent major epidemics -- and also improve the quality of patient care.


  "With SARS, they couldn't track what was going on, so they made an effort to build a population-surveillance and disease-tracking system," Blatt explains. "They succeeded within a year." According to Blatt, China's Center for Disease Control now has a system that allows daily updates from 16,000 hospitals nationwide, providing information on 32 different diseases.

How does that compare the U.S.? "We have a paper-based system," says Blatt. It takes the U.S. CDC a month to get information that the Chinese can get in a day.

Foshan is a centerpiece of China's efforts to jump to the head of the health-care IT pack. The city is participating in a government experiment with a goal of linking 20 hospitals (with a total of 10,000 beds) in the city, allowing them to exchange medical records with one another electronically. That makes it easier and faster for doctors to treat patients. But in the U.S., such exchanges are quite difficult because so many hospitals use different IT systems. That's why even hospitals within the same company in the U.S. have problems exchanging data with one another, Blatt complains.


  But in Foshan, the government can simply require all the hospitals to fall into line -- one of the advantages to having an authoritarian government. The city has a 10-gigabyte network connecting the 20 hospitals and two clinics taking part in the program.

"For anyone who gets sick at any of the hospitals, the doctors can see the patients' lab values, medications, the entire health record from a health center," says Blatt. Given China's severe shortage of doctors -- it has about the same number as the U.S., yet four times the population -- the ability to share such information is especially important.

Foshan's health-care IT hub even has a global positioning system that's hooked up to the police and the fire departments. If a traffic accident causes a backup, the dispatcher can alert the ambulance driver and send it on a different route. Says Blatt: "We just went there and..." his jaw drops jaw in mock surprise.


  Foshan is hardly representative of what's going on in most hospitals in China or other parts of Asia. The country is just one of many in the region without enough doctors, a shortage that puts tremendous pressure on physicians to see huge numbers of patients. Large hospitals in China, South Korea, and Thailand regularly treat a million outpatients a year, twice as much as a large hospital in New York.

Asian countries also don't have enough nurses. China has only two nurses for every doctor. In the U.S. and most other Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) countries, the ratio is more like four to one. And Blatt concedes that "a significant number" of hospitals in China have just "rudimentary" IT systems, with many of the computers used just for billing rather than for improving the quality of care.

In other industries, the Chinese government has shown that it's capable of vaulting from a laggard to a leader in just a few years' time. As Intel seeks to sell more chips in China, the U.S. semiconductor powerhouse is counting on Beijing to do for its hospital network what it did for its cellular system. That could mean a big improvement for Chinese patients -- and a big opportunity for American companies.

Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek

Edited by Patricia O'Connell