By Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen, CEO of Novo Nordisk

Published 29 October 2019

Forty years ago, less than 1% of Chinese people had diabetes. Today, this figure is nearly 11% – well above prevalence levels in much of Europe – and the 121 million people living with diabetes in China make up nearly 30% of the world’s total. Indeed, diabetes management now accounts for 8% of China’s healthcare budget, according to the World Health Organization.

It is a sobering backdrop as we in Novo Nordisk mark 25 years of our presence in China. We have achieved a lot since opening an office in Beijing in 1994, establishing a strategic manufacturing plant in Tianjin in 1995 and becoming the first multinational company to set up a biotech centre in 1997.

But we want to do more – and tens of millions of people are relying on our help. Currently only one-third of Chinese people living with diabetes are receiving treatment – and just 16% are achieving their blood sugar targets. Without proper control of their condition, patients risk life-threatening complications, including heart and kidney disorders, as well as eyesight loss and amputations.

The good news is that China has a long-term vision to bend the curve of its diabetes epidemic. Indeed, this ambition forms a core part of the Chinese government’s drive to deliver on its Healthy China 2030 strategy, which aims to provide lifelong chronic disease treatment for the entire population.

It is because of this focus that China is now setting the pace for the rest of the world when it comes to applying digital health solutions. Building on past successes in areas such as mobile payments, Chinese tech companies are racing to shake up the country’s stretched healthcare system.

The evidence on the ground is clear: from photo booth-style 'one-minute clinics' that connect patients with a medical advice team, to smart ambulances harnessing artificial intelligence to link doctors in urban centres with healthcare professionals in remote areas.

The application of smart technology is particularly relevant to diabetes, since people living with the disease have to make dozens of decisions about their health every day as they try to balance diet, blood sugar readings and medication. Smartphones and apps provide a way to guide people through this maze, while letting healthcare professionals monitor progress during the intervals between doctors’ appointments.

As the market leader in diabetes care in China, we are committed to playing our part in harnessing the power of this new technology and, during my trip, I saw first-hand how cutting-edge digital tools are already being used to improve both early diagnosis and disease management. Making the most of this opportunity requires investment and collaboration, so we are partnering up with local companies to ensure that we're at the forefront of this digital revolution.

One example is our collaboration with WeDoctor – a nationwide medical consulting platform connecting an astounding 172 million patients and 300,000 doctors – that allows people living with diabetes to stay in touch with their doctor via a user-friendly mobile app. We also have a digital patient support programme with AliHealth, initially targeting 130,000 people but with plans to scale up.

CEO, Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen, visits the Novo Nordisk production site in Tianjin, China

China is also striving to streamline diabetes treatment. One initiative I find particularly impressive is the standardised care model developed by the National Metabolic Disease Management Center, which has already been rolled out to around 600 hospitals. The medical data generated by this system allow for dynamic, big-data analyses of diabetes epidemiology, prevention, diagnosis and treatment – and can even be linked to large-scale clinical trial programmes.

We're also working closely with the Chinese government to strengthen the healthcare system and build capacity by training doctors in hospitals and primary care centres. Furthermore, in our research centre in Beijing, our scientists are reaching out to Chinese biotech start-ups and incubators.

However, we also know that unless China improves prevention, the burden of diabetes could become unsustainable. So it's significant that six Chinese cities – Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xiamen and Chongqing – have joined our Cities Changing Diabete partnership, addressing the social and cultural factors linked to urban living that can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. With 80% of Chinese people expected to be living in cities by 2050, up from just 20% in 1980, the need for action is urgent – and our role in developing innovative solutions for patients has never been more important.

For more information, contact Chris Moss, Senior Editor.