a doctor operates with the help of precision robots

China is turning to AI and big data to ease the stress on its healthcare systems. Source: Shutterstock

China’s healthcare system needs more tech players

CHINA has been actively using artificial intelligence (AI) to help alleviate the strain on its healthcare system.

Ping An Good Doctor’s instant clinic, as well as iFlytek and Tsinghua University’s AI systems which perform better than humans in a medical examination, are both examples of China’s different approaches to using AI in healthcare.

However, the country’s demand isn’t something that can be fixed with just a few players. There is plenty room for many more players to help tackle the challenges plaguing China’s ailing healthcare system.

It’s not that there is a lack of players in the market either. In fact, Beijing based analytics company Yiou Intelligence reported that at least 131 companies are currently working on applying AI in the country’s health-care sector. Amongst them is tech giant Alibaba.

Alibaba is using cloud and data systems to tackle issues in health care operations, such as traffic congestions, long patient queues, and the shortage of doctors.

In Shanghai, the tech company is working with a hospital to predict patient demand and allocate doctors using data. In Zhejiang province, Alibaba is using AI to help analyze medical images like CT scans and MRIs. In Hangzhou, the company’s AI and big data systems help ambulances navigate traffic.

In terms of drug distribution, Alibaba Health partnered with Merck KGaA on systems to help track medicines to prevent counterfeiting. It is also reportedly working on online drug sales, as well as a possible direct-to-patient sales online.

Despite the efforts, the country remains troubled by overcrowding in urban centers, while rural areas face a shortage in medical resources. Hundreds of millions of people go untreated for relatively simple diseases.

Up until recently, the government was slow in adopting technology into healthcare systems. China’s healthcare sector was dominated by public hospitals and state-run firms, resulting in highly fragmented systems.

Beijing has been trying to fix the problem. With an increasingly aging population, the state is pressured to deliver better access to healthcare at a more affordable price.

On the policy side, things are starting to change. The country’s capital has started enacting laws with strong support for internet-based basic healthcare services. Currently, it’s in the midst of approving the sale of certain prescription drugs online.

Beyond that, doctors are also relying on technology such as document sharing systems and video live-streaming, to delegate more junior medical staff for patient diagnosis. For example DXY, a network of online doctors who offer consultations for patients with chronic diseases, like diabetes. It operates mainly via social media platform WeChat.

Although China is making progress in leveraging technology to ease the burden on its healthcare system, technology alone is not enough.

Convincing patients to use online services instead of going for a face to face diagnosis is a hurdle. Persuading hospitals to spend extra money on implementing high tech tools is also no easy feat.

Doctors also warn that AI cannot replace medical staff. A doctor commented to Reuters, stating that technologies “will help accelerate and improve diagnoses, but will not replace good doctors, who are still needed to verify and correct diagnostic results”.

It might take a while yet before AI is truly integrated to the healthcare systems. However, if past experiences are any indication, China is quick to adapt once a technology has proven its worth.