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Bio & Life Sciences Healthcare Innovation The Pandemic

Lessons from the Pandemic: Technology Disrupting (and Improving) Chinese Healthcare

Local doctors walking in downtown Xiamen, China during the Covid-19 emergency.

We have learned many lessons from the pandemic – but three stand out as drivers for how to improve healthcare. First, it is painfully apparent that certain segments of the population lack access to care, resulting in huge gaps in healthcare outcomes. Second, it is clear that technology has fundamentally impacted all industries and changed business models. That’s true especially in healthcare, which has been a laggard in adopting tech. Third, unorthodox partnerships and collaborations have greatly accelerated our ability to move. They have allowed us to introduce new solutions to health challenges as pandemic pressures and waves of COVID traveled around the globe. Recent pilots undertaken by Sanofi, where I serve as CEO, along with partners, shed light on how we can retain the lessons of the pandemic and build on its successes.

Work we’ve done in China has given us deep insights into how to tackle these issues – which many areas across the world also face. Here’s more on several efforts we have worked on in China that have yielded significant results:

Reaching those without access

Our first observation was the indisputable need to reach marginalized populations. It is well documented that minorities, and those in remote areas, have been most heavily impacted by COVID as well as other chronic diseases. These populations suffer from high rates of diseases such as diabetes and may live where healthcare providers and proper therapies are inaccessible. In China, like many parts of the world, the best doctors and specialists are often in large hospitals in urban areas like Shanghai and Beijing.

China, however, is taking measures to increase access to these specialists in rural parts of the country. China’s Healthy China plan is working to increase healthcare capacity while extending its reach to more of the population. Nearly 64% of China’s population live in counties many kilometers from the nearest hospital. The challenge is how to reach this remote population. One effective strategy has been to integrate with what China calls its “internet hospital” system. It offers a closed loop, using digital technology, from consultation to prescription to payment to medicine delivery. Now, internet hospitals are emerging as a new channel with significant potential. In 2020 alone, nearly 49 million Chinese used them for online diagnosis and treatment.

The urgency of extending healthcare access is especially clear when managing chronic illnesses. Such illnesses are on the rise worldwide, due to an aging population and changes in societal behavior. Now, approximately 33% of Chinese citizens over the age of 50 suffer from a chronic illness. For example, diabetes affects over 129 million people there, accounting for about 11% of Chinese adults. In response, one chronic disease care project launched last October was designed to build a coordinated management system for chronic diseases targeting ordinary situations and emergencies, provide patients with full-life-cycle health care and medical support, and ultimately improve comprehensive chronic disease management in China. In a first step, six county-level hospitals followed standards and processes for chronic disease management formulated by experts and obtained front-line data as well as management experience. This will serve as a pilot, to be rolled out to county-level hospital clusters. As an important milestone, an analysis report is expected to be published at the end of this year, focusing on the current situation of chronic disease diagnosis and treatment in county-level hospitals in China.

AI and IoT can enable better healthcare outcomes

The rapid adoption of new technology tools has also had a strong impact in improving health outcomes. By using an artificial intelligence (AI)- and internet of things (IoT)-enabled app, we established a standardized process for out-of-hospital management of diabetic patients. It included systemic implementation of a management/care concept through a smart three-party interaction system–including a physician, nurse, and patient. Patients were guided through a personalized treatment journey, with different intervention frequencies, methods, and contents. Over the past 7 years this system has been used by more than 500 hospitals, reaching 780,000 diabetic patients. Within three months it raised adherence to treatment regimens from 49% to 78-82%.

Unorthodox collaborations

It is deeply important to think of an effective healthcare system as an integrated closed loop. This means linking local doctors and clinics, specialty hospitals and experts, families and patients, and insurers into one service for patients. It is imperative to connect in-hospital medical treatment, out-of-hospital management, and payment scenarios, so that the system works seamlessly. To close existing gaps between these players, partnerships between stakeholders from various industries are key. That will enable us to improve diagnosis, treatment norms and standards through large-scale medical education and training, as well as to explore various forms of commercial insurance innovation.

One example is a Sanofi partnership with Ping An Smart City to develop and provide innovative solutions for patients and healthcare professionals in diabetes management. Another is a strategic partnership with Atman, a pioneering company in medical language intelligence, which creates a bilingual (English and Chinese) medical information platform. With the help of AI and natural language processing, the platform becomes a medical communication engine. Most recently, Sanofi announced a strategic partnership with JD Health, one of the largest digital healthcare platforms in China. The two companies will leverage complementary strengths to promote a full range of strategic initiatives in five areas – prescription drugs, vaccines, consumer health product, medical services, and commercial insurance. This will cover a full-service cycle–before, during, and after diagnosis. The companies will also together explore innovative payment methods, aiming to improve the patient journey through online consultation, drug prescription, purchase, delivery, and disease management.

Pandemic key learnings

During the pandemic, we witnessed how people struggled with COVID even as many simultaneously sought help for preexisting conditions and chronic illnesses. By closely examining where we could innovate and move quickly, we gleaned learnings that have the potential to benefit other industries as well as transform healthcare in many parts of the world.

Digital technology in healthcare will ultimately lead to medical care that’s faster, less expensive, and offers greater access. People living in rural areas and disadvantaged populations will be able to get equal access to quality medical treatment as digital solutions cut time spent traveling to doctors and obtaining prescriptions. An integrated closed-loop system that allows for a streamlined diagnosis, treatment, and commercial insurance pathways appeals to both patients and physicians. By forming unexpected partnerships, we can help break out of old ways of operating and speed up innovation. These strategies will help us address many underlying challenges that the pandemic made painfully apparent.

Paul Hudson is CEO of global pharmaceutical company Sanofi.

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