Spotlight on Taiwan - 2 of 3: Can Taiwan be a leader in innovation in aging?

Can Taiwan blaze the trail for innovation in aging at a state level? My recent trip to Taipei for the inaugural Aging Innovation Week (see report here) made me realize how much they were already doing right, and what significant potential they have to be a leader in innovation in aging.
Like many other Asian and Western populations, Taiwan's is getting old fast. Today 11% of its population is over 65, but by 2025 that number will rise to more than 20%, officially categorizing it as a 'hyper aged' society. Against this background the government and local health and aging-care organizations are making a concerted effort to make plans to upgrade their infrastructure, services and financial models to deal with this new reality. Taiwan has a number of factors that it could use to implement innovation at scale to adapt to the new reality of a rapidly aging population:
    • Strong tech background. Taiwan has made great strides with its education system - its school-age students regularly beat the world at math and science competitions, and almost 70% of its 18-22 year olds are enrolled at a higher education institution, only second globally to South Korea. Taiwan is home to many large hardware manufacturers, such as Acer, Mitac, HTC and Taiwan Semiconductor, many of whom are starting to explore innovations related to health and aging (Mitac hosted us on the Industry Innovation Week).

    • An easy on-ramp to China. For most people China can be pretty daunting, and Taiwan is a good on-ramp with many companies closely integrated. In general things are fairly well organized, efficient, clean, and many people speak pretty good English (certainly more than when I was in Shanghai and Beijing a few years ago), while the majority (98% of the 23m population are Han Chinese) speak Mandarin.

    • Friendly, open and humble. I had been told to expect a friendly welcome, but I was still surprised by the warmth and welcoming attitude from almost everyone I encountered on my trip. (The height discrepancy often led to hilarity and many selfies as this the locals enjoyed welcoming this Western giant in their midst.) There was also a bias towards listening - a serious desire to learn best practices from the west, and the government have been engaging experts in the West about their new strategy and proposed compulsory long-term insurance plan (providers - take note).

    • Efficient and well-liked health service. Taiwan operates a compulsory government-run health insurance system, established in 1995, which costs around 8% of GDP (compared to 19% in the US). Not only cheaper, it is more well-liked than the US one - 75% of survey recipients said they were very satisfied with the system, with a further 20% saying it was OK - only 4% didn't like it. Premiums are low (my hosts were entrepreneurs who paid around $25 USD / month for full coverage) as are co-pays, and are 100% covered for those on low-incomes.

    • Strong family values and structures. Similar to many Asian countries, there is more of a tradition of the family living together across generations. I don't know what the percentage of people living in nursing homes that don't get any visits, but I suspect it will be significantly lower than in most Western countries. Aging-in-place / in-community will come naturally here.

This makes for a strong set of assets. Here are some suggested actions that could accelerate Taiwan's role as an innovator in the space:

    • Develop an entrepreneur friendly age-tech ecosystem. I heard that it's often hard for Taiwanese young people to tell their parents they want to be an entrepreneur, as it's not really considered a viable career path as it is in the US. To make it easier, the government could create structures to support entrepreneurs, such as running startup competitions and providing mentorship and guidance, and giving decent funding to the winners, in conjunction with private sector funders.
    • Attract the best companies in the world. Taiwan can attract companies around the world by offering them favorable economic benefits to establishing a base in the state, and helping them with access to the China market - which most ambitious Western entrepreneurs have on their medium term plan. This provides benefit of learning from the best in the world.
    • Focus on care in the community. Hospitals are not the best places to treat those with the long-lasting, multiple, chronic conditions that we will be seeing in our elderly populations - supporting people in the community makes more sense from a quality of care perspective and also a financial one.   Bringing in technologies to support aging in place and care in the community will allow local and foreign entrepreneurs to develop and improve best practices.

To be a hub of innovation in aging will take a delicate blend of 'hard' technical and 'soft' people skills, visionary, long-term leadership and a proactive approach. By all accounts Taiwan is well-positioned to do this. We look forward to continuing discussions with Taiwan as they develop and roll out innovations to improve the quality of life for older people.