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How to Get Started With Healthcare & Hospital Marketing in China

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How to Get Started With Healthcare & Hospital Marketing in China


The healthcare situation in China is relatively unknown to many outside of the country. We’ll take a brief dive into explaining the current situation in this blog and how foreign healthcare providers can take advantage of the opportunities present in this market.



We’ll also go over a few of the channels that should definitely be included in your healthcare marketing strategies. Read on to learn more!



How to Get Started With Healthcare & Hospital Marketing in China: Table of Contents


The Current Healthcare Situation in China Read Now


The Rise of Medical Tourism In China Explained Read Now


Top Destinations for Chinese Medical Tourists Read Now

Precautions To Take Note for Healthcare & Hospital Marketing in China Read Now

Healthcare & Hospital Marketing in China: Pu Tian Medical Group – A Cautionary tale Read Now


Healthcare Marketing Strategies & Hospital Marketing in China Read Now


Promoting and Developing an Effective Chinese Website Read Now


Using WeChat for an Enhanced Customer Experience Read Now


Working With China’s One Stop Shop For Medical Services – Ping An Good Doctor 平安好医生 Read Now




The Current Healthcare Situation in China



China’s healthcare system is similar to many other countries in that they offer both public and private healthcare. Of course public hospitals tend to be cheaper and aim to provide care for the less well-off while private hospitals are more expensive and aim to provide better service to those who can afford it.



In reports put out by Chinese media in 2017, there were a total of 16,900 private hospitals in China making up 57.2% of all hospitals in China. That places the total number of hospitals at around 29,600.





Due to China’s growing elderly population as well as chronic health issues related to pollution and other factors, the burden placed on Public hospitals has been growing significantly. The Chinese government has relaxed regulations related to foreign ownership and investment in hospitals to stimulate growth in this sector and share the burden of public hospitals.



However, the situation has not improved by much as healthcare in China provided by private hospitals has so far not been able to pick up much of the slack. According to estimates and historical data from the end of 2016 only 10% of medical services are provided by private hospitals in China.



Chinese citizens waiting in line at the public hospital for treatment.

Standing in line is expected at public hospitals but most Chinese still prefer public hospitals over private hospitals.



This is due to inaccessibility due to cost as well as a stigma Chinese citizen hold towards private hospitals. This stigma stems from previous decades when private hospitals were known for poor service, malpractice, and hosting inexperienced doctors. Public hospitals are widely respected and doctors working at them are considered more experienced due to the sheer volume of patients that they see on a daily basis.



Given the current situation, relaxed regulations, and demographics, The Chinese healthcare market is rife with opportunity for both foreign and domestic businesses in the healthcare industry.


The Rise of Medical Tourism in China Explained



Given the current healthcare situation and the current burden of public hospitals in China, it’s no wonder that medical tourism from China is on the rise.



As a relatively new industry, there isn’t much out there in terms of formal data, but China’s largest OTA (Online Travel Agency) released several pieces of data to showcase the emergence of this trend.



Ctrip Logo - Dragon Social

Ctrip, or more commonly known now as Trip.com provided some interesting statistics related to medical tourism.



Ctrip found that over 500,000 people traveled in 2016 due to medical reasons. It also stated that the average spending on medical tourists was over 50,000 yuan (US$7,286), 10 times the expenditure on individual overseas trips. Among the many categories available on Ctrip, medical care services ranked fourth among the top 10 leisure activities that the site had to offer.



In a report published by the China Tourism Academy, it was estimated that over 2 million Chinese people travel abroad for health tourism annually.



The China Tourism Academy provides statistics on Chinese tourists.

The China Tourism Academy provides statistics on Chinese tourists.



This phenomenon is being driven largely by three factors.  The first is a lack of trust in the Chinese healthcare system due to a range of scandals over the years at both public and private hospitals. With the growth of social media in China, these scandals are now widely publicized resulting in increased distrust in the Chinese health care system.



The second issue driving many Chinese abroad in search of medical care is the lack of state-of-the-art procedures at many Chinese hospitals. This is due to stringent regulation from the Chinese government that requires extensive testing of any new technologies or procedures before being introduced to the Chinese healthcare system.



One example shared by ForeignPolicy.com was that of Proton Therapy, a cancer treatment procedure that has already been in use in Europe and the US for several decades, which was only introduced to China in 2015.



Proton Therapy

Proton Therapy is a procedure first introduced in hospitals in the late 1980s early 1990s. The first being in the UK, and the second in California.



The final issue driving the boom in Chinese medical tourism is the most obvious, overcrowding. With China’s massive population it’s well known that doctors are incredibly overworked. Doctors in China are often forced to see dozens of patients, if not more, resulting in low satisfaction rates among patients.



Given that the average patient spends no more than a few minutes with a doctor it’s easy to see why many Chinese would choose to go abroad.



Top Destinations for Chinese Medical Tourists 



The boom in medical tourism in China has definitely benefited some countries more than others. India, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Europe, and The United States have also seen large influxes of Chinese medical tourists. However, some destinations have done better than others. In this section, we’ll cover a few of the top destinations for Chinese medical tourism and the reasons behind their popularity.



You can check the graph below for some popular destinations for medical tourism and what services they provide. You can also check out this article from MillionMileSecrets to see what types of savings you can expect to see as compared to healthcare in America! 


A selection of countries and what services are most popular for medical tourists in each country




Top Destinations for Chinese Medical Tourists: India



India has become one of the largest destinations for medical tourists worldwide in recent years. India has been particularly popular for a number of reasons the most important being its low cost and its advanced treatments. It is also popular with many tourists for its traditional practices of Ayurveda and yoga.





Patients Without Borders, a consumer information agency dedicated to the medical tourism industry, estimated that compared to costs in the United States patients in India could pay up to 90% less for quality treatment.



India is becoming an increasingly popular destination for Chinese medical tourists, particularly for those among the lower and lower-middle classes. Ayurveda has been particularly popular with many Chinese tourists as like Traditional Chinese Medicine it has thousands of years of history. India is also incredibly popular due to its low-priced pharmaceuticals and generic drugs. 



However, India does have a bit of a reputation issue as quality from hospital to hospital in India can vary greatly. Indian hospitals hoping to attract medical tourists from China need to differentiate themselves and build trust among potential Chinese patients.



Rockland Hospital is a popular destination for medical tourists in New Delhi

Rockland Hospital is a popular destination for medical tourists in New Delhi



This can be accomplished by providing Chinese language materials, interpreters, Chinese digital marketing materials, and endorsements from Chinese patients. Given the growth in the market, it would certainly seem to be worth it!



Top Destinations for Chinese Medical Tourists: Japan



Japan has been a popular destination for medical tourists for quite some time due to its reputation for advanced medical services, high-quality standards, and customer service. Tourists traveling to Japan for medical reasons are usually more affluent and are often seeking services related to more serious illnesses.





Japan’s cancer treatment and early detection programs are some of its most popular services. It has consistently ranked as the most popular destination for Chinese medical tourists. 



The Japanese government has taken note of this trend, and in January 2017 designated 28 hospitals as “international hospitals” according to the Nikkei Asian Review. Through this program, the Japanese government has created detailed documentation concerning testing, treatment, advanced medicines, and services available at each of these hospitals in a variety of languages for the purpose of better informing prospective medical tourists.



The University of Tokyo Hospital, one of 28 hospitals designated as International Hospitals.



The Japanese government has also promoted the establishment of agencies to handle patient inquiries to prevent medical tourists from reaching out to hospitals directly where language issues could cause problems.



Top Destinations for Chinese Medical Tourists: Malaysia



In February 2018, Patients Without Borders named Malaysia as one of the most popular destinations for Medical tourists in the world. Malaysia has become well-known for providing high-quality service at competitive prices, with savings estimated to be from 65 – 80% compared to the USA.





The Malaysian government views medical tourism as an important driver for the Malysian economy. This led to the formation of the Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council, which provides information and services for inbound medical tourists. Malaysia has seen YoY increases in the number of medical tourists visiting the country of nearly 23%, with the total number surpassing one million in 2017 and hopes to surpass two million by 2020.



Malaysia’s healthcare system is particularly popular for medical tourists seeking treatment in the fields of fertility, oncology, orthopedics, and cardiology. Malaysia has invested heavily in developing this industry and is expected to become one of the leaders in medical tourism going forward. 



Top Destinations for Chinese Medical Tourists: Thailand





Thailand has long been hailed as a top destination for medical tourism. Thailand has the most internationally accredited hospitals in all of South-East Asia and is the top destination globally for medical tourists worldwide. With its impressive healthcare system, low prices, and beautiful amenities it’s no surprise that Thailand has been able to capture the #1 spot.



Medical Tourists coming to Thailand are often in search of cosmetic surgeries, dentistry, or dermatological procedures. While these might be the most popular Thailand’s accredited hospitals are more than capable of treating a wide range of other illnesses. 



Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok is one of the largest hospitals in all of South-East Asia and has become one of the most popular destinations for medical tourists worldwide. The hospital claims to have served over 520,000 patients from over 190 countries and treats a total of 1.1 million patients per year.



Bumrungrad Statistics - 1.1M Patients treated per year, 520,000+ international patients, 190+ countries patients come from, and 39 specialty centers

Bumrungrad Hospital in Thailand showcases some impressive statistics to prospective medical tourists.



While that might be the best, there is a multitude of other accredited hospitals scattered throughout Thailand ready to serve inbound medical tourists.



For Chinese medical tourists, Thailand has become a go-to destination for cosmetic surgeries, basic medical check-ups, and anti-aging procedures.



Having been in the business so long, Thai Hospitals and healthcare providers have developed a range amenities specifically catered to Chinese including Chinese websites, Chinese-speaking staff, and partnerships with Chinese travel agents. However, marketing is seen as a weak-point for these hospitals as many have little to no reputation in the Chinese market.



Top Destinations for Chinese Medical Tourists: The United States



The United States remains the country of choice for China’s elite & wealthy medical tourists. The United States is recognized worldwide as one of the most state-of-the-art locations for medical services, however, the costs related to such services make them inaccessible to the average Chinese.



The Mayo Clinic as well as other hospitals are internationally recognized as some of the best providers in the world.

The Mayo Clinic, as well as other hospitals, are internationally recognized as some of the best providers in the world.



The primary reasons Chinese medical tourists seek treatment in the United States are mostly related to cancer and infertility. The United States is seen as the global leader in these areas hence its popularity. While Chinese medical tourists might consider the United States for other procedures, costs would prevent all but the wealthiest of Chinese from choosing to receive treatment in the United States.



This data is from 2015, healthcare in the US is likely even more expensive.

This data is from 2015, healthcare in the US is likely even more expensive.



Medical tourism to the United States has been in steady decline as costs continue to rise and other countries develop their own advanced healthcare sectors. The United States will likely remain the top choice for the wealthy in China. For Chinese medical tourists without the cash, they will likely choose one of the countries listed above.



Precautions To Take Note for Healthcare & Hospital Marketing in China



Chinese citizens are very familiar with scandals and poor service in the healthcare industry. In efforts to improve the image of the healthcare sector and prevent fraud, the Chinese government has taken significant steps to curb false/over exaggerated advertising for healthcare services. 





The easiest law to run afoul of for businesses in the healthcare industry would be the following law:



“Advertisements shall not contain false or misleading information.”



This has been the basis for many lawsuits since its passing in 2015. For example, a Chinese pharmaceutical maker was recently sued over a claim made about a Toothpaste it sold designed to stop bleeding gums.



In its advertising the company claimed that the primary ingredient and reason for its effectiveness was an ancient herbal compound used in Traditional Chinese medicine, however, a post on Weibo pointed out that the toothpaste contained tranexamic acid a drug invented in 1962 to prevent bleeding. No public settlement has been announced and the lawsuit appears to be ongoing.



Healthcare & Hospital Marketing in China: Pu Tian Medical Group – A Cautionary tale



The most famous scandal related to the healthcare industry in recent memory was related to Pu Tian Medical Group and its advertising on China’s largest search engine, Baidu.



The story began with a 21-year old cancer patient named Wei Zexi. Wei had been diagnosed with synovial sarcoma a rare form of cancer affecting the tissue around major joints. Wei Zexi had already undergone radiation and chemotherapy in efforts to combat his disease without success. In his desperation following these treatments, he turned to Baidu to search for alternative treatments.





Through a promoted result on Baidu, Wei stumbled across a hospital offering a form of immunotherapy called DC-CIK, which the site claimed could treat his disease. After collecting over RMB 200,000 from his family, he underwent the procedures which ultimately proved ineffective. Little did he know that this particular form of therapy had already been tested and proven ineffective in the United States



After the treatment had finished Wei, who was a frequent user of Zhihu, wrote a response to a user generated question “What Is Humanity’s Greatest Evil?” where he described his experience and his anger at both the hospital for its deceptive advertising and Baidu for providing a platform to companies like this.



Wei Zexi's Post, Still Live on Zhihu

Wei Zexi’s Post, Still Live on Zhihu



The post on Zhihu went viral with nearly 70,000 people endorsing the post and nearly 11,000 users commenting on the post. The post was shared across social media channels to the point that nearly everyone in China had heard about the incident.



Wei Zexi died on April 12, 2016, a month after creating his post. While anger had died down after his post, his death revealed how serious this issue really was and resulted in a PR nightmare for both Baidu and The Putian Medical Group, the company that had performed the procedure on Wei.



This negative impression of Baidu still persists in China.  Just recently Baidu CEO, Robin Li, was nominated to become a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. After news of his nomination went public, the internet was filled with posts claiming he wasn’t worthy of the nomination, citing the Wei Zexi incident as proof.



The Putian Medical Group is a network of private hospitals distributed throughout China and started in the city of Putian. The Putian Group is the largest player in China’s private healthcare industry and its member hospitals make up nearly 80% of China’s private hospitals.



The group was found to rely heavily on advertising to bring in customers. So much so that the company spent $1.8 billion on advertising on Baidu in 2013, nearly half the search engine’s revenue for that year. The company had also been operating clinics from within other private hospitals to piggyback off their reputations and gain consumer trust. There have been numerous reports of the groups falsifying doctor credentials, partnerships, and testimonials.



Many doctors, like Dr. Qiu Jianqin pictured above, have come forward speaking of the medical group's unscrupulous practices.

Many doctors, like Dr. Qiu Jianqin pictured above, have come forward speaking of the medical group’s unscrupulous practices.



While the group has not been fined by the government its reputation has been severely damaged due to the incident. With the added scrutiny from the Wei Zexi scandal more and more people who had been deceived by the group emerged detailing numerous abuses and forms of corruption. Given their domination of the private hospital market, public trust in the private healthcare system has been greatly diminished.



Healthcare Marketing Strategies & Hospital Marketing in China



Hospitals have quite a job when it comes to marketing in China. Public hospitals have the benefit of government support and low cost so they don’t regularly engage in marketing activities, but the private healthcare market has become increasingly competitive in recent years.



For those in the healthcare industry, there are a few channels that simply cannot be ignored for establishing a brand image and building trust.



Healthcare Marketing Strategies & Hospital Marketing in China: Developing and Promoting an Effective Chinese website



The first of these channels is obviously a website. This is an essential channel for healthcare and hospital marketing in China. While not every business in China needs a website, it is absolutely essential for hospitals and healthcare providers.



Websites for healthcare providers in China should be created with the patient in mind. The user experience should be friendly and should effectively communicate the image, reputation, culture, and services of the business. Done wrong a website can give a negative image and fail to establish trust with the user.



In an industry so plagued by scandal, a well-done, clean, and clear website can be instrumental to a hospital or healthcare provider’s success. More sophisticated websites can even offer online consultations or appointment scheduling through web-chat or WeChat.





Companies should also invest in consistent content creation to place on their website. Businesses should produce content that answers the most common questions users may face, as well as trending & topical content to establish authority and showcase expertise. This content should be continuously updated to remain accurate and maintain user trust.



However, you can have the best website in the world and still have zero results if you don’t promote it. The most effective channel for promoting a website is still search engine marketing.



Tieba, Baidu Tieba

Baidu (The search engine) home page



While the horror story from the Putian Medical group mentioned above might scare you away from search engine marketing, this remains one of the most effective advertising methods for healthcare providers and hospitals in China. Paid advertising has been limited since the incident but Baidu and other search engines still have plenty of organic content from hospitals featured in search results.



Related Article: The Top 5 Chinese Search Engines You Need to Care About



If China is one of your main channels for patients or your business is based in China SEO is something you shouldn’t ignore. However, SEO is a long-term game, so if you want immediate results this is not the right marketing strategy for you. 





Search engines are one of the main methods through which potential patients can obtain medical information. Paid advertising is restrictive and limited in scope, but Baidu still approves a range of different medical-related advertisements for display on the search engine. A little trial and error with ad formats, wording, etc. can result in effective advertisements with highly trackable ROI. 



Related Article: Baidu SEO Guide: How To Get Started & What To Avoid



As long as healthcare providers and hospitals maintain compliance with China’s advertising laws this can be an incredibly powerful marketing channel to draw users into the company website where they can convert into customers.



Healthcare Marketing Strategies & Hospital Marketing in China: Using WeChat for an Enhanced Customer Experience



Like almost every business operating in China, establishing a WeChat presence is essential. WeChat offers a range of functions as well as a number of third party applications that allow hospitals and healthcare providers to promote their businesses and provide services effectively.



As with a website, healthcare providers and hospitals should ensure that their WeChat front-end is clean, simple, and user friendly. It should provide information in a logical manner and make all functions easily accessible.



The back-end of the WeChat official account can be integrated with a business’s back end, allowing users to book consultations and appointments through the platform.



The WeChat Official Account of the China Japanese Friendship Hospital in Beijing lets you make a booking directly, ask questions, and more!

The WeChat Official Account of the China Japanese Friendship Hospital in Beijing lets you make a booking directly, ask questions, and more!



However, the most important part of the WeChat experience for the user should be its interactions with the company. WeChat is often used for customer service, especially for businesses in the service industry.



Healthcare providers and hospitals should employ designated WeChat operators to answer user questions and comments in an effective manner as well as showcase the brand’s values in their interactions. For accounts with a lot of content hosted on the platform, operators should direct users to explore the content hosted on the account further to find more details and answers to their questions.



This can be an effective method to encourage word of mouth marketing, sharing, and trust in the brand. Providing this high-level of service to users will be more effective than simply pushing content and hoping for the best.  WeChat is one of the tools you won’t want to miss for hospital marketing as since good service can be such a rarity in the Chinese medical system providing a good user experience will bring your business a significant boost. 



Healthcare Marketing Strategies & Hospital Marketing in China: Working With China’s One Stop Shop For Medical Services – Ping An Good Doctor 平安好医生



平安好医生 (Píng’ān hǎo yīshēng) or Ping An Good Doctor is a one-stop shop for both online an offline medical services in China. This app is quickly becoming one of the most powerful tools for healthcare marketing in China. The platform has become the largest mobile medical app in China, with 265 million registered users and monthly active users (MAU) of 54.7 million as of December 2018.





The company employs over 1000 medical professionals on its in-house medical team as well as over 5000 external doctors to provide online consultations. The platform has a built-in AI that learns from the conversations and consultations conducted on the platform that users can access for instant answers to certain queries.



The app also partners with over 2,000 healthcare providers including, dental clinics, cosmetic surgeons, examination centers and more. The company has also partnered with more than 15,000 pharmacies. Through these partnerships, it began offering one-hour online medicine dispensing and delivery services in 86 cities in Mainland China.





Simply being listed on this platform can convince Chinese patients that you’re more trustworthy. The platform also tries to actively match users with the right service providers, allowing the platform to make a sizeable amount of revenue through referrals. However, like every app in China, they also provide in-app advertising



The company plans to expand to South-East Asia and will begin accepting partners from the region in 2019. For businesses operating both inside and outside China, this is surely a platform you want to keep an eye on if you hope to target China. We anticipate this will grow to be an outstanding tool for healthcare & hospital marketing in China. 



How to Get Started With Healthcare & Hospital Marketing in China: Conclusion



Marketing for both healthcare companies and hospitals can be incredibly tricky and requires extensive knowledge of China. Working with reputable healthcare marketing and referral partners who truly understand the market is essential, as one wrong step can result in serious penalties. 



Market entries are never easy but throw in the complexities surrounding the healthcare industry and China’s complex new advertising laws and you have a recipe for potential disaster. However, the opportunities in the market are astoundingly large. With China’s aging population and growing middle-class, the needs for effective healthcare providers will undoubtedly grow.



Medical Tourism from China is predicted to grow for the near future. Foreign companies that are able to enter the market and build their reputation’s as reliable and effective healthcare providers can seize this opportunity and make themselves a go-to destination for medical tourists.



This is an opportunity healthcare provider shouldn’t pass up on and should consider as part of their long-term growth strategies.

Tony DeGennaro
Tony DeGennaro

Tony is a passionate marketer with interests in social media and search engine optimization. He specializes in Chinese Social Media and Advertising. After getting his MBA in Marketing at CUHK he became one of the founding partners of Dragon Social in Hong Kong.

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