Feiyan Shen Sherry Gao
Feb 9, 2024

Five things you need to know when creating health campaigns in China

VML Health Shanghai's CEO Feiyan Shen and strategic director Sherry Gao, map out their top recommendations for those wanting to tap into health communications in China in the Year of the Dragon.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

If Chinese New Year symbolises removing the bad and welcoming the good, the Year of the Dragon should come hot on the heels of World Cancer Day (February 4) because the outlook for health in China will depend significantly on how the country tackles the growing burden of cancer.

Marketing will play a big part.

The importance of promotion to improve health outcomes is so significant that the Chinese government has highlighted it as a key indicator in its long-term health strategy. But, faced with a complex health system, diverse demographics, and deep-rooted cultural nuances, the challenges for marketers are unlike any other. 

Here are five trends you need to know when you’re creating health campaigns for China. Though presented through the lens of cancer, they translate across health.

Health literacy is poor but improving

Around 25% of Chinese adults understand or act on health information. This is particularly prominent in rural communities, which comprise 40% of China’s population. Though the situation is improving, poor health literacy is a barrier to improving health in China, especially in cancer. 

Globally, China currently ranks first in terms of new cancer cases and cancer deaths, accounting for 30% of all cancer deaths in 2020. The dearth of health knowledge among citizens is inevitably a factor.

Health literacy is a priority in the Chinese government’s Healthy China 2030 strategy, which places health promotion at the heart of a plan to improve chronic disease management and increase 5-year survival rates from cancer by 15%.  The plan—which says cancer should be treated as a chronic disease—advocates the promotion of healthy living, with a focus on disease prevention, early diagnosis and optimised health services. 

Introduced in 2019, Healthy China includes a 'Health Education Initiative' to bolster health literacy. In 2022, the 5-year survival rate from cancer grew to 43.7%, inching closer to the 2030 target of 46.6%. Gains in health literacy are likely factors behind the trend.

Cultural nuances are deep-rooted, but mindsets are changing 

The size and scale of China, along with its diverse population, is unquestionably at the root of its healthcare challenges. The biggest drivers of inequity, particularly in cancer, stem from variation in medical resources between cities and provinces, as well as differences in treatment approaches/therapies between large, small, specialist and community hospitals.

These trigger health disparities across diverse demographics like urban and rural communities or young and older populations. Curiously, however, cancer was the leading cause of death for urban residents in 2020 but only the third leading cause in rural populations. Whether an anomaly or a result of China’s response to Covid, this stat highlights the need to stay appraised of diverse demographics.

China’s diversity is reflected in cultural nuances between population groups that influence health behaviours. The most striking is arguably the generational divide in attitudes towards cancer. China’s older generations often treat a cancer diagnosis as a death sentence. At the same time, younger people increasingly adopt a more positive view—seeing cancer as something that can be managed so life can go on. This mindset shift is particularly evident in diseases like breast cancer, where incidence amongst young people is growing. Still, social platforms are allowing them to engage in conversation and learn more about the disease. Understanding these cultural nuances is key.

Traditional Chinese Medicine remains popular, but new innovations are trending

Despite advances in science, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) remains popular in China, especially in cancer, where it plays an important role in tumour treatment and post-op rehabilitation. With cancer typically causing additional symptoms—pain, cardiovascular, mental health issues, etc.—TCM is seen as a good way of alleviating these problems and improving quality of life.

The Chinese government believes TCM is one of China’s unique assets, advocating its use in chronic diseases, including cancer. At the same time, the government is also pushing for greater access to new oncology drugs, seeking to close the gap between marketing authorisation and reimbursement. Physicians are increasingly interested in new cancer therapies, with 59% willing to try them. 

China’s combined reliance on TCM and innovative medicines is unmatched, however, it requires a novel approach to health creative.

Technology is turbocharging health like nowhere else

The use of tech to connect communities across health is motoring. China’s introduction of ‘Internet Hospitals’—which combine traditional healthcare with tech-enabled services—is gathering pace as patients become increasingly familiar with online diagnosis and treatment. Physicians are becoming more progressive, too, spending a third of their online time on patient consultations and education. Tech’s transformation of health will only intensify.

Patients are becoming a powerful force

Linked to advances in digital media, patients in China are becoming an influential voice, particularly in cancer. As the use of social platforms grows, citizens are increasingly engaging in health conversations online, embracing the principles of self-care and disease awareness outlined in Healthy China 2030.

Patient’s appetite for diversified digital services to support their treatment journey is growing; 71% exchange relevant information via online ‘patient clubs’, 64% evaluate treatment plans via additional channels beyond their physician, and +80% use multiple channels to learn more about their disease. 

The opportunity to engage in health online to inform decision-making and guide disease prevention in China is without parallel. It’s empowering patients and positively influencing outcomes.

Enter the Dragon

These trends highlight the power of creative communications to improve health in China. As we enter the Year of the Dragon, the opportunities they present should put fire in the belly of every marketer.


Feiyan Shen is the CEO of VML Health Shanghai. Sherry Gao is the strategic director of VML Health Shanghai.

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