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China Leapfrogs Healthcare Access

A Parkinson patient in a remote rural area receives a deep brain stimulation implant inserted by a lead surgeon located nearly 2,000 miles away. This tremendous feat wasn’t carried out in a major academic teaching hospital, or in the United States—often seen as a center for cutting-edge healthcare—but in China. The patient lay on an operating table in a remote province, while the surgeon guided the surgical instruments via computer thousands of miles away in Beijing.

I just returned from attending the China International Import Expo (CIIE), and while in China I heard numerous stories that showed equally stunning results. China is tackling access and expansion of healthcare with emerging technologies and faster 5G networks — and breaking new ground in doing so. 

What was clear from my visit is that digital health technology is now becoming a normal part of healthcare there, both for patients and the physicians who treat them.  A recent report by Royal Philips concluded that China is in the lead and has jumped several ranks in adopting technology, ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and France.

Consider this: ninety-four percent of Chinese health professionals say they use digital health tech or mobile apps, with 81 percent of Chinese people surveyed saying that they contacted a medical professional because of information they received from digital health technology or mobile apps, compared with just 47 percent of patients in the other 15 countries surveyed. 

Here are three tactics that I believe will help other countries emulate the digital healthcare progress that China has achieved:

1. Meet the people where they are – on their mobile phones 

People live on their smartphones, and as 5G continues to rise, it will have a significant ripple effect on nearly everything from the economy to healthcare. (China has already seen a nine-fold increase in 5G-related job openings.) Indeed, the increase in bandwidth and higher speeds that come with 5G could help revolutionize the way that people seek, receive and monitor their personal healthcare. While internet penetration in China has room for improvement, there are lessons to be learned from the way that healthcare companies have leveraged the Chinese peoples’ penchant for mobile to offer better healthcare access tools. In fact, of the 828.5 million Chinese people using the internet, 98 percent do so using mobile devices.

The proliferation of mobile internet usage has also coincided with the rise of chronic disease and an aging population in China. As a result, the need for mobile, easy-to-use disease management tools has skyrocketed. China has been spearheading the rise of the “fingertip medical treatment” movement. Many organizations – including pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, hospitals and other consumer wellness companies – have created apps and online portals that allow patients to use their phones to book appointments, receive test results, and converse with a healthcare provider. Companies have even developed apps that can monitor a person’s pulse and scan irises for signs of illness. While healthtech is also on the rise in many other countries, the speed at which China has been able to develop and implement healthcare access with these tools outpaces other countries. 

2. Fortify the startup ecosystem and encourage partnerships 

The key to fostering continuous digital health innovation in China, as in most other countries, lies in the creation of a startup ecosystem. Already, there are 865 healthtech startups in China, and China has earned an international reputation as a hub for digital innovation. Sanofi, for example, has announced a new digital innovation hub in Chengdu, which will be one of our key digital centers connected to our hub network.

Many of the top causes of death in China – including cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory problems and diabetes – also top the list of the most common causes of death in countries across Europe and the United States. Chinese start-ups are tackling these health crises by focusing on connecting patients with providers to address real patient needs and close the access gap. WeDoctor, for example, is an online healthcare startup that is connected to about 2,700 hospitals and 290,000 doctors and has served 190 million patients.

Large companies are also setting up healthtech capabilities. Ping An – one of China’s largest insurers – launched the Good Doctor, a health care medical consultation platform. Recently, the number of registered users reached 300 million, of which nearly 62.7 million were monthly active users. The app primarily acts as a portal for medical consultation, which is difficult for those who live in remote areas. Apps are an area Sanofi is also keen to explore, and we’re collaborating with Ping An to create an analytics app that will help patients and their doctors manage diabetes care using AI and cloud-based big data analytics. 

3. Create a government commitment to bold goals and cultivating popular adoption

In 2016, China initiated the Healthy China 2030 plan, a holistic approach that includes efforts to boost the number of practitioners and hospitals per patient, reduce out-of-pocket treatment expenses and increase overall life expectancy. China has also led the share of global investment and financing in the field of artificial intelligence between 2013 and the first quarter of 2018, with 60 percent of the global total, followed by the United States (29 percent) and India (5 percent).  Government support for healthcare access and for investment in advanced technologies has accelerated China’s progress.  Today, large percentages of the population are fast adopters of new tools and technologies in healthcare.  

A recent Pew Research survey showed that Americans were still concerned about the integration of technologies such as robots, with 85 percent of Americans saying that policies should restrict the use of robots to hazardous work. On the other hand, 44 percent of Chinese people would prefer a remote consultation with their doctor via a digital channel for nonurgent care, while a comparative 15-country average found only 27 percent agreeing with this approach.

China has created a vibrant digital ecosystem which is a hotbed for innovation and business disruption. There is significant adoption by Chinese patients and their physicians. Both start-ups and China’s top tech companies are driving change in healthcare. The capabilities they are building provide insights into how we can better deliver healthcare in every region – across disease management, diagnosis, monitoring and treatment, and engaging with patients, providers, hospitals and payers.

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