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The United States isn’t the only country where a big shift toward increased coverage of health care costs has created unexpected consequences. As a result of a Chinese government commitment to provide medical service to its entire population, U.S. exports of medical film to China have skyrocketed.

The digitally oriented news organization Quartz reported on the phenomenon Thursday:

During the first 10 months of 2013 the U.S. exported $273 million worth of bulk film rolls—the raw material that is cut into the type of film that eventually ends up in cameras and X-ray machines. That’s more than the three previous full years combined. … Most of it was headed to China.

In 2009, the Chinese government promised to spend $123 billion to provide medical care for all 1.3 billion of its people. That meant that an estimated 20,000 hospitals and another 10,000 specialized imaging facilities needed a lot of scanners. Film X-ray machines were a cheap and easy solution, especially in rural areas. From 2008 through 2012, the Chinese market for such scanners grew by 42 percent.

Carestream Health, which makes medical films and equipment, has been a major benificiary. (Carestream was formerly Eastman Kodak Company’s Health Group.) Robert Salmon, a Carestream spokesman, told Quartz that China was the largest market for medical films and that the business was growing. Carestream makes the film, but it’s cut and packaged in China.

How long will the bonanza last? Quartz speculated that in just a few years Chinese clinics may be able to afford to upgrade to digital machines or at least to retrofit their film scanners for digital radiography. But that may be underestimating the appeal of “good enough” technology outside major medical facilities. After all, it’s still easy to find film X-ray machines in U.S. clinics.

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Why is growth in healthcare spending slowing? A private economic research company says it’s not the Affordable Care Act. The analysis partly credits technology, in a backward way. For details, see our Facebook page.

Related CME seminar (up to 17 AME PRA Category 1 credits™): Emergency Radiology

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