New policies push China’s Hainan pilot zone

China has unveiled another package of favourable policies to boost the international medical tourism pilot zone in the southern province of Hainan.

The Hainan Boao Lecheng International Medical Tourism Pilot Zone aims to be internationally advanced in medical technology, equipment and medicine by 2025, according to the latest action plan for its development.

The plan calls for building an advanced clinical centre, a base for R&D and the application of cutting-edge medical technologies before 2025.

The medical tourism pilot zone was originally designed to provide a range of medical services and a green medical convalescence environment to attract domestic and foreign tourists. Hainan’s climate means it already receives 66 million Chinese tourists and a million foreign visitors.

By 2030, the plan is that the zone will be developed into a world-class destination for international medical tourism and innovation platform for medical science and technology.

Advantageous measures in the plan (although some of which are repetitions of the last two plans) include:

  • Allowing in-zone medical institutions to import much needed foreign drugs and medical equipment that are not yet approved by the top drug authority in China.
  • Allowing patients to take imported drugs of limited dosage (which have not been registered in China) out of the pilot zone for personal use.
  • Allowing research hospitals to collect real-world clinical data from patients using imported drugs and medical devices. The data could be used to expedite the registration and approval process for innovative drugs and medical instruments to enter China.
  • Encouraging state-level public hospitals to enter the zone. Three to five public hospitals will be authorised to franchise brand, trademark, and technology to medical institutions in the pilot zone.
  • Building an evaluation centre for imported drugs and medical devices to assist the clinical use of imported drugs and medical devices.
  • Delegating the evaluation power of senior professional titles in the health sector to the zone.

Hainan will create a plan for real-world clinical data application and research, introduce necessary standards, and establish the required legal and regulatory framework.

Boao Lecheng Centre, on the east coast of the Hainan Island between the cities of Haikou and Sanya has 20 square kilometres on which clinics of traditional Chinese and Western medicine provide healthcare services. The government claimed an income of US$53.7 million in 2018, more than double the 2017 figures. It also claims it received 32,000 medical tourists in 2018 compared to 19,000 in 2017; although how many are from China and how many are from elsewhere is not revealed.

In 10 years, Hainan wants medical tourism revenue to reach 40 billion yuan (US$5.84 billion). This includes domestic and international medical tourism. It is projected that within a decade, 10% of overnight visitors to the zone will be medical tourists, accounting for 20% of Hainan’s tourism industry revenue. The target of 5 million tourists, including 500,000 medical tourists, from Greater China, Chinese provinces, and other countries, is considered ambitious and could be difficult to achieve.

The zone has several clusters covering stem cells clinical research, tumour treatment, medical cosmetology, anti-aging, and assisted reproduction.

By 2030, at least 100 projects will be implemented. Of these, 81 investment projects have obtained official approval and 38 have passed medical technology assessments, but only 16 projects have broken ground and nine hospitals and clinics been opened including:

  • Boao Evergrande International Hospital is a cancer hospital in affiliation with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, of Boston, USA.
  • Boao Super Hospital offers high-end medical services to the Chinese public, and hopes to attract international medical tourists.
  • Boao International Hospital is a global centre for cancer treatment, regenerative medicine, genetic therapy, and reproductive medicine
  • China Stem Cell Group has opened the only stem cell hospital in China.
  • Ciming Boao International Hospital and Fertility Centre is an international centre for assisted reproductive medicine partnering with USA reproductive medical groups on assisted reproductive treatment and services to address the problem of decreasing birth rates in China.

In this medical tourism pilot zone project, the government will act as an advocate, planner, and regulator while private institutions capitalise on pilot policy benefits to catch investment opportunities.

The Chinese authorities have been trying to attract foreign investors to the island province but details of success, or failure, are scarce. Trade wars between the USA and China have put off some potential investors, while the troubles in Hong Kong make other foreign investors wary of whether promises of a “hands-off” policy will be kept in five or 19 years’ time. 100% foreign direct investment and ownership in hospitals is not yet allowed, as foreign companies must have Chinese partners.

Currently, the pilot zone is actively bringing in commercial investment and seeking co-operation with foreign institutions, such as international hospitals, health management institutions, third-party testing institutions, medical colleges, laboratories, pension insurance companies, and medical tourism institutions.

It is intended to become the world’s largest research and development base, equipped with advanced medical equipment, as well as a platform for personnel exchange and international cooperation in the healthcare sector. The cluster is also expected to contribute to the development of China’s medical tourism industry.

By 2050, the plan is that the island will become a unique international cluster with an advanced economy, developed tourism, top scientific, technical and financial potential, and modern medicine.

By 2025, the Chinese government also intends to create an international centre for tourism and consumption on Hainan. It has an overall plan for Hainan FTZ, which aims to turn the whole island into a free trade port and prioritises the development of three sectors: tourism, modern services, and high-tech industries.