AI Ambulances and Robot Doctors: China Seeks Digital Salve to Ease Hospital Strain

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ONLINE DRUG SALES

The policy winds may be starting to change. Beijing has enacted legislation over the last two years 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”.

Now, Beijing may be about approve the sale of some prescription drugs online, creating a major opportunity for local and global firms, according to companies in the sector. Janssens of Merck KGaA said the company had “good indications” that policymakers were addressing the issue of pharmaceutical e-commerce “as we speak”.

Li Tiantian, the founder and chairman of DXY, said the health ministry had met with healthcare companies like his own and planned to soon release a policy on “internet hospitals“, which would open up some online sales.

 

Screen displaying Tencent Miying, an AI-powered medical imaging service, is seen next to visitors at the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen
A screen displaying Tencent Miying, an AI-powered medical imaging service, is seen next to visitors at the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song

 

 

“I think the new policy will be released very soon, potentially in July,” he said.

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.

Li added that Ningxia autonomous region, in north-central China, had already been approving some internet hospital providers on a test basis.

Global drugmakers are taking notice. A move to open up online sales – if approved nationwide – would help shake up a drug market dominated by state-owned distributors and public hospitals, where most medicines are still prescribed and sold.

Merck KGaA, for example, recently announced a tie-up with Alibaba Health focused on systems to help track medicines to avoid counterfeiting, but also on online drug sales and potential direct-to-patient sales online.

 

FALSE HOPE?

In the United States, technology firms like Amazon, Google and Apple have made pushes into healthcare, with mixed results, often finding sprawling medical markets tougher to crack than entertainment or media.

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 still have concerns about drug sales online.

Doctors and industry insiders also said that technology alone could not solve the issues facing the sector.

“Technology is important but is not enough on its own,” said DXY’s Li, a former doctor. He said the most immediate benefit was creating new channels for simple primary care.

Wang Aihu, a cardiologist at Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, said medical centers were increasingly using online appointment and payment systems, and that he conducted internet consultations for patients in remote regions.

 

He added that his hospital may eventually have “AI-powered medical imaging systems or robot doctors”, but these could not replace medical staff

“These promising technologies will help accelerate and improve diagnoses, but will not replace good doctors, who are still needed to verify and correct diagnostic results,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped one hospital in Beijing doing a “man vs machine” standoff this month to detect neurological disorders including brain tumors. A robot developed by the prestigious Tsinghua University and iFlytek, a local firm, has also taken and passed China’s medical exam for doctors.

 

 

For most people in China, however, AI ambulances and robot doctors may need to wait a bit longer. Tony Li, 55, a cancer patient in Shanghai, said he had seen little cutting-edge tech in Chinese hospitals in regular visits over the past few years.

“From what I heard, some of the newest technologies can help doctors identify tumors at earlier stages, and that’s great,” he said. “But the internet has a tendency of exaggerating things, giving us enormous false hope.”

Alibaba Cloud’s Min acknowledged the company was still working to prove the value of its technology, and that many hospital administrators were still suspicious of things like cloud computing. But, he said, “In China, once a new technology is proven useful then everybody is crazy about it.”

 

(Reporting by Adam Jourdan; Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Philip McClellan)

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