How will online medical services develop in China after the coronavirus outbreak?

During the coronavirus outbreak in China, most medical facilities had to focus their limited resources on screening and treating patients. Many hospitals maintained only essential services, such as emergency medicine and dialysis. People with minor discomfort or chronic diseases were afraid of visiting medical facilities due to the outbreak, and they turned to internet-powered medical services, thereby driving up demand as the crisis has evolved. 

Online medical services, which originated around 2000, can provide users with consultations and prescriptions. Many experts say they could revolutionize medical treatment. Frost & Sullivan researchers believe the industry will be worth RMB 198 billion in China by 2026, about 20 times its 2016 size. The development of online medical services has been relatively slow compared to that of other internet-based businesses. Though many investors have pumped money into the industry, Chinese consumers seem rather lukewarm on it. A Bain & Company survey found only 24% of Chinese respondents had used telemedicine. 

Chinese consumers have joked the coronavirus is like an online celebrity influencer, able to change consumer behaviors in days. In mid-February, there were 191 public healthcare institutions and nearly 100 private medical platforms in China offering free online diagnoses during the coronavirus outbreak. According to Qianfan Analysys, there were 6.71 million daily active users (DAUs) of online healthcare apps, a 31.28% increase over several weeks. In mid-February, Good Doctor, one of the leading apps, reported that it had received 1.11 billion unique visits since the start of the outbreak, gaining 10 times the number of users.

Photo: Bain & Capital consolidated and illustrated

Good Doctor is a one-stop, patient-facing, online medical service provider offering consultations as well prescriptions. The company hires veteran physicians from hospitals, offering decent compensation to provide their services via the internet. According to Good Doctor COO Bai Xue, there are more than 1,000 physicians on the medical team. The app focuses on providing primary care services along with drug and other medical sales, such as annual physical checkup packages. The one-stop model mimics that of traditional hospitals but uses the internet to drastically reduce wait times for appointments.

WeDoctor, backed by Tencent, works somewhat differently, constructing a massive network connecting physicians and patients. WeDoctor was founded in 2010 as a Chinese version of Zocdoc, an American online medical services provider, which allows people to schedule appointments with their preferred physicians. Later on, WeDoctor added online consultations to its list of services. As of May 2018, WeDoctor had a large pool of around 240,000 physicians. 

When the coronavirus outbreak halted many outpatient services in hospitals, physicians with some free time offered free online consultations on these and other apps, helping patients receive the best treatments. When the coronavirus spread widely overseas, WeDoctor quickly launched a free English platform for foreign users. 

Yet another Chinese online medical platform is Ding Xiang Yuan (DXY), a virtual community of healthcare professionals. Doctors can use the platform to continue their education and prepare for licensing examinations, among other services. DXY also offers the general public access to its doctors, though it’s only a small part of its operation. During the coronavirus, the company leveraged its professional network to contribute to educational handbooks and online posts. DXY has been one of the most reliable sources of information on how to prevent coronavirus infections. Furthermore, the company developed a visual dashboard to show cumulative case numbers and mortality rates in different regions. When the outbreak worsened, Johns Hopkins was unable to manually update its information, so it began using  DXY’s near real-time China data.

Due to online healthcare services’ critical role in providing consultations, many people believe the crisis may accelerate their development in China. On February 28, Beijing announced that approved online medical treatments for common and chronic diseases will be reimbursed by public insurance. That’s a big deal, as Bain & Company found that 97% of Chinese people would be interested in online medical services if the costs were covered by employers or insurance providers. The same study survey found that 64% of Chinese consumers expect to use online medical services within the next 5 years. The government’s greenlight may further speed up the industry’s development. 

Photo: Bain Frontline of Healthcare APAC Survey 2019

Online consultations can neither replace in-person visits nor the need to visit hospitals for medical tests. However, online medical services can be useful in many scenarios. First, people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension, can benefit from online medical care by quickly and easily receiving prescriptions. Second, busy people who have symptoms but no underlying medical conditions can receive medical advice and avoid going to hospitals. Third, online consultations break physical distance barriers; patients can solicit second or third opinions from different experts across the nation. Last but not least, patients with special conditions who are afraid or ashamed of visiting doctors in person can consult them online.

(Top photo by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay)

Fang Yuan
Fang Yuan

Fang Yuan is our columnist. She used to live in New York and is originally from Shanghai. She is a Certified Passive House Consultant and works on sustainable building consulting. She believes that technology helps people and the environment if it is being used mindfully.

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