China can help cure world: Stanford expert
As the country becomes more advanced, it can play a more substantial health role: professor
Facing an especially rapid rise in cases of chronic diseases, China is in a good position to contribute to the global effort to create new solutions, beyond working to solve its own problems, said a Stanford expert.
“As middle income countries like China develop economically, their health problems more and more resemble those of fully developed nations, like the United States,” said Randall Stafford, a professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and director of its program on prevention outcomes and practices.
Although the current burden of chronic disease in China still falls short of that in the US, the rapidly increasing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke, place enormous pressures on the Chinese government and society, he said.
National data show that in 1980 only less than 1 percent of China’s population had diabetes; today the number is more than 12 percent.
The increase in chronic disease is mostly the result of worsening lifestyle behavior, such as limited physical activity, less healthy diets, alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking and bad sleep patterns and exposure to unhealthy environments, according to Stafford.
He further attributed the behavior to greater availability of economic buying power, a shift in the economy toward products and services and adoption of globalized health behaviors that are less healthy (such as fast food chains and TV/screen entertainment).
As a result, a growing segment of the workforce is at risk for reduced productivity and leaving the economy before retirement age, which means a reduced return on the substantial investment that has been made in developing a skilled workforce through education and training, Stafford warned.
“Just at a time when China’s economic growth is slowing because of less reliance on exports, the health of the workforce is also leading to less productivity.
“Increasing chronic disease also places significant strain on the healthcare system,” he said.
In the meantime, China’s culture and history and its growing prominence in the world economy also make it a prime place for the development, testing and widespread implementation of new solutions, Stafford said.
China’s history of pragmatic policymaking, significant investment in public health, centralized policy formulation and well-trained public health researchers all enhance China’s capacity to create effective approaches, he added.
This summer, Stafford’s program partnered with Peking University to organize a graduate-level seminar on disease prevention, which recruited two other Stanford experts — a health psychologist and a statistician — and 15 students from each university as well as more than a dozen Chinese experts on disease prevention, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), research design, primary health care and health care data.
At the conclusion of the seminar, the students proposed strategies aimed at individuals and policies in preventing teenage children of smokers from taking up smoking, and reducing weight gain and the overall intake of salt among college students.
They used a phone app to track the salt intake among college students while working with university dining halls to offer food choices cooked with less salt.
While in Beijing, the Stanford experts also teamed up with Beijing Cancer Hospital and Institute to build statistical models that attempt to track cancer occurrence.
The innovative approach makes full use of geographic information and combines and analyzes the information, such as where the cancer patients lived and worked or what they had been exposed to, without making assumptions ahead of time about the causes of cancer, Stafford explained.