China seeks digital help for creaking healthcare system

Online consultations among steps to get around dearth of doctors, long waiting lists

HANGZHOU • In the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, an ambulance speeds through traffic on a wave of green lights, helped along by an artificial intelligence (AI) system and big data.

The system, which involves sending information to a centralised computer linked to the city's transport networks, is part of a trial by Alibaba Group.

The Chinese tech giant is hoping to use its cloud and data systems to tackle issues hobbling China's healthcare system like snarled city traffic, long patient queues and a lack of doctors.

Alibaba's push into healthcare reflects a wider trend in China, where technology firms are racing to shake up a creaking state-run health sector and take a slice of spending that McKinsey & Co estimates will hit US$1 trillion (S$1.36 trillion) by 2020.

Tencent-backed WeDoctor, which offers online consultations and doctor appointments, raised US$500 million in May at a valuation of US$5.5 billion. Ping An Good Doctor, a similar platform backed by Ping An Insurance, has raised US$1.1 billion in an IPO.

"The opportunity is growing very fast," said Dr Min Wanli, the Hangzhou-based chief machine intelligence scientist at Alibaba's cloud division.

Alibaba is working with a hospital in Shanghai using data to predict patient demand and allocate doctors. In Zhejiang province, the company is working on AI-assisted diagnosis tools to help analyse medical images such as CT scans and MRIs.

Chinese hospitals are increasingly using technology to bridge the gap between urban centres and remote parts of the country where doctors are in short supply.

Using document-sharing systems and livestreaming video, specialists can direct more junior medical staff on-site doing patient diagnoses.

DXY, one of China's biggest online networks of doctors, offers consultations on the WeChat social media platform for patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes, with a team of nurses and doctors providing medical advice.

China's healthcare system has long grappled with a shortage of doctors, exacerbated by low wages and a dearth of local clinics and general practitioners. That means patients often crowd into large, specialist hospitals for even minor ailments.

Beijing has been trying to fix the problem, setting targets to raise the number of family doctors. But the government has been slow to embrace technology within the healthcare system, held back by the challenge of digitalising a sprawling, fragmented hospital system still dominated by public hospitals and state-run firms.

The policy winds may be starting to change. Beijing has enacted legislation that has included strong support for Internet-based basic healthcare services.

Premier Li Keqiang said this year that healthcare tech could "help alleviate the problem of inaccessible and expensive public health services that have long been a big concern".

Beijing may be about to approve the sale of some prescription drugs online. The policy would allow approved hospitals to consult, prescribe and sell drugs to chronic disease patients online.

However, regulatory concerns over safety and pushback from state-run distributors sank a similar plan several years ago.

Technology firms in China also face major obstacles. One is convincing patients to see doctors online or getting hospitals to spend extra money on high-tech tools that promise efficiency boosts or improvements for patients.

And regulators have concerns about drug sales online.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2018, with the headline 'China seeks digital help for creaking healthcare system'. Print Edition | Subscribe