From Barefoot Doctors to Healthcare in the Cloud: Telemedicine Opportunities in China – Part 2

By Zhen Nie and Eline Van den Mooter – This is the second blog of a series that elaborates on “The Opinions” published by the Chinese government, and current applications of Telemedicine in China. In the previous article we have described and discussed “The Telemedicine Opinions”, setting a framework for the anchoring of Telemedicine in the Chinese Healthcare system. In this article we will look at several different implementations and applications of Telemedicine in China today.

Cloud-based hospitals

Cloud-based hospitals are being created, in which the networks are funded by Private-Public Initiatives (PPIs). The main objectives of the Health Cloud are:

  • Offer access to healthcare and pharmaceuticals to patients in rural or distant regions
  • Increase efficiency in healthcare system by connecting patients to care providers for primary care
  • Increase healthcare management efficiency through sharing resources and patient data among medical institutions and caregivers at all levels of the Healthcare hierarchy. Allowing Tier I hospitals and hospitals in rural areas to have access to resources, technology and knowhow of the best hospitals
  • Explore the possibilities of big data

Connecting lower level and rural based hospitals to urban, public hospitals:

Ningbo cloud based hospital:
The first cloud-based hospital was inaugurated on March 11th 2015 in Ningbo (Zhejiang province) by the Ningbo Municipal Bureau of Health and Family Planning Commission and the Neusoft Hee Kang Health Technology. The hospital is equipped with cutting-edge cloud technology and connects 100 primary care institutions, 226 specialists and care providers. It also installed four cloud based “Diagnostic Rooms” for hypertension, diabetes, psychological consultation and primary care), enabling patients to access these services from the comfort of their home. The functionality of e-prescriptions being sent to local pharmacies completes the online services offered.

SUNPA network:
SUNPA has built four Telemedicine centers in China in cooperation with the following public institutes: Beijing Center, Shanghai Center, Guangzhou Center, and Kunming Center. The network covers eight provinces and municipalities, including Yunnan, Hainan, Shanxi and Guangdong, with a total population of over 200 million.

They not only provide access to medical care and pharmaceuticals, but to healthcare education as well. As SUNPA has also built cloud-based networks in the Unites States, Africa and South-eastern Asia, they connect hospitals and care providers even across the globe and have thus become the world’s largest Telemedicine network.

Connecting Sichuan Healthcare Program:
The “Connecting Sichuan” healthcare program is another nice example of Telemedicine and cloud-based hospitals. This PPI was initiated during the recovery process after the devastating earthquake in 2008, which painfully exposed the gaps in the healthcare system to offer first aid medical care, especially in distant regions.

“Connecting Sichuan” aims to radically transform the healthcare system, its education and its workforce. The plan is to connect 66 health institutions within the regions of Chengdu, Deyang and Aba, making use of four different cloud-based solutions:

  • Smart hospitals
  • Regional Healthcare cloud access
  • Telehealth
  • Mobile clinics
Chengdu Cloud Hospital
Chengdu Cloud Hospital

The network connects 7,000 practitioners and supports approximately 15,000 inpatients and 280,000 outpatients per month. The integrated datacentres process 400,000 online health files and 60 m rural-cooperative medical insurance records.

A recent study has shown that Connecting Sichuan has brought the following benefits:

  • The regional health cloud has brought about significant improvements in management and clinical care efficiency
  • Clinical effectiveness solutions have benefitted both patients and healthcare workers.
  • Patients receive high-quality care at an affordable cost
  • Patients are satisfied and see value in the integrated health services provided by mobile clinics.

Connecting patients and care providers:

The Guangdong No.2 Provincial People’s Hospital launched Telehealth to its patients on October 24th 2014. The main goal of their platform is to provide consultation to rural areas. More than 30 “online consultation rooms” have been set up in community medical centers, rural offices and even pharmacies which provide the patients internet access to the platform through the means of video conferences and online chat sessions. Care providers can send e-prescriptions which can be printed out at the local medical institutes, allowing patients to purchase their medicine at the local pharmacy.

Next to the PPIs creating cloud-based hospitals, existing online players are responding to the Telehealth trend, launching applications to support patients in their search for medical health.

Online healthcare

Connecting patients and care providers:

Longmaster Information & Technology Company Limited and the Chinese search engine Baidu for example closed a strategic partnership to create a patient targeted platform rating and ranking hospitals and allowing customers to opt for the best medical choices.

Another example is haodf.com, a healthcare community platform that allows patients to connect with doctors and offers them online access to medical sites, hospitals, and other relevant information. Haodf.com is a Chinese company founded in 2006, which started out with providing patients with medical reference news. They actually developed the first internet-based enquiry system with real-time updates on outpatient information.
In the meantime, Haodf.com has become the largest medical triage platform in China. It subordinates to Interaction Peak Technology.

But also online consultation is facilitated by private investors: the Chunyu Yisheng app has been providing online consultations via chat and internet calls since 2011 already. More than 30 m users are connected to roughly 40,000 care providers. The aim is to register 100 m users by the end of 2015.

Sources:

Medical e-Commerce:

Pharmaceutical companies in China have discovered the advantages of e-Commerce and online sales of pharmaceutical products, both in the B2B as in the B2C areas.

Trying to increase sales by offering the end customer convenient and easy access to medicine, they develop platforms for e-prescriptions, online sales, tracking of patients and corresponding medication data. Important players leading this digitalization of pharmaceuticals are Shenwei Pharmaceutical and Shanghai Pharmaceutical.

Additionally, Yiling Pharmaceutical cannot be ignored, with their investment 50 m RMB into an online health management platform integrating online sales of pharmaceuticals, care support and other services.

The explosion of Telemedicine and e-Healthcare applications obviously attracts non-medical online players as well, trying to play a role. The Chinese e-Commerce giant Alibaba has stepped into the online pharmaceutical business, both on the B2B as the B2C side.

Firstly, they offer a platform where distributors and suppliers can find each other and do business. Alibaba has also recently revealed its ambitions to build a platform for online sales of e-prescribed medicine and facilitation of online payment of healthcare services.

Lastly, they launched an app through which patients can scan e-prescriptions and subsequently compare prices and products from different pharmacies in the area.

Opportunities for foreign Telemedicine providers

The previous article in this series on Telemedicine in China discussed how the Chinese central government pushed Telemedicine in China with the publication of “The Telemedicine Opinions”, setting a framework, mainly aiming to stimulate private investments. We also outlined that the implementation of this official notice are still in some cases neither clear nor practical.

On the other hand, the creation of this universal framework on a national basis lays the foundation for what may very well become the largest Telemedicine market in the world… with all the opportunities that come with it.

From TforG’s discussions with care providers in the field, we can conclude that “The Opinions” notice has stimulated various initiatives in the field: private investors – often in cooperation with public authorities – are launching several Telemedicine implementations.

With this blog, TforG tried to give an overview of the variety of initiatives which are already in place or being implemented, often even stepping beyond the framework set by the Chinese central government.

The good news is that China is only at the beginning of this trend, and that ample opportunities remain to be explored. European and American Telemedicine technology and service providers interested in expanding in China should not be hesitant and try to identify potential domestic partners.

About Zhen Nie

Zhen is in charge of Asian Operations at TforG, with more than 6 years of experience in project management and business consulting for local and international companies. She works in a continuous basis with an extensive network of Key Opinion Leaders and Health Policy makers in Asian markets. She graduated at the University of Antwerp and has a Master Degree in Finance. Tel: +32 3 201 64 24 Mobile: +32 485 89 98 84 Email: z.nie@tforg.com