The Dichotomy of Hygiene in China

March 31, 2015

By Elizabeth Roche, Director, Research & Strategy

During a week in China conducting in-home interviews to better understand use environments for medical devices I was struck, like others before me, by the contrast between the grime outside the homes and their immaculate interiors.

We spent much of our time in Beijing where smog sits between buildings like silt in a murky river. Construction debris and everyday rubbish was piled up along the streets and in courtyards. The conditions outside each apartment building we visited varied little across income categories. The stairs and walls leading to each apartment were poured concrete covered in spray-paint-stenciled advertisements touting the availability of cleaning ladies, repairmen and the like. However, once we crossed the line into the family living space we encountered nothing but sparkling, shiny apartments.

The worlds on either side of the threshold could not have been farther apart on the continuum of hygiene.

Inside families were hyper-conscious of cleanliness, their walls displayed only carefully selected décor, often abundant with lace and floral patterns.

Towards the end of our trip we had the opportunity to tour two Beijing hospitals and encountered a similar disparity. One hospital was high-end, the other plebian. The former was polished from top to bottom, resembling a cross between a ballroom and a posh shopping mall. The other bore greater similarity to a busy train station with all the crowding, lines, kiosks, teller windows, and hyper-sized digital displays that one would expect in such a place — as well as all the dirt and disarray. We followed our guide into an emergency room, where people strolled in and out without any formal registration process. Beds lined the walls with no curtains or dividers to provide privacy. Medical equipment stood randomly about. Nothing about the room showed any hint of shine or polish, let alone attention to hygiene, privacy or organization.

The medical device industry is making bolder steps into China, and savvy companies will tune in to the nuances of Chinese culture – including the paradox of hygiene. After all, Chinese customers, like others elsewhere in the world, expect their medical products to be safe and efficacious, yet their daily environment challenges this on nearly every level. Successful products will be the ones that equip people to combat these challenges with confidence.

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