Trends emerge in areas such as surgery, treatment of chronic illnesses

Healthcare professionals work at the Chronic Disease Management Center of digital healthcare company WeDoctor's grassroots-level healthcare maintenance organization in Tianjin in August 2021. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

After years of development, China's digital healthcare sector is embracing new types of high-quality innovation, with many new trends emerging.

Digital healthcare — medical services provided with the help of digital technologies — includes remote consultations, internet hospitals and smart healthcare.

Digital healthcare is serving as a critical supplement to the public healthcare system, helping local areas take measures in epidemic prevention and control.

Chen Jia, independent researcher of international strategies

During the just-concluded 2022 World Internet Conference Wuzhen Summit in Wuzhen, East China's Zhejiang province, digital healthcare company WeDoctor, based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, also showcased its latest achievements.

In 2015, just before the opening of the second WIC, WeDoctor launched China's first internet hospital — Wuzhen Internet Hospital — in Tongxiang, Zhejiang. The hospital provided online follow-up visits, digital healthcare record sharing and online diagnoses and prescriptions on a large scale, the company said.

By September, the company had offered digital healthcare services through the partnership with nearly 8,000 brick-and-mortar hospitals nationwide. There were 300,000 registered doctors on the platform and 33 internet hospitals, among which 19 had worked out ways for patients to be covered for their services with public medical insurance.

"In the past 10 years, China's medical reform has achieved great breakthroughs, and digital healthcare is a key factor in that. China's new medical reforms, which emphasize digitalization, offer an example to the rest of the world," said Liao Jieyuan, founder, chairman and CEO of WeDoctor.

The company also started a healthcare maintenance organization (HMO) in Tianjin in 2020.The organization serves as a cloud platform that gathers information from 266 grassroots-level hospitals in the city. The HMO performs digital, intensive and standardized management of the healthcare information of patients, especially patients with chronic illnesses, WeDoctor officials said.

By September, 76.68 percent of diabetes patients participating in WeDoctor's chronic disease management were following the platform's standardized management process. The rate of controlled blood glucose of those who participated in chronic disease management for three months was 13.5 percent higher than those who did not participate, company officials said.

"Digital technologies offer us great means for chronic disease management, which requires constant efforts inside and outside the hospital," said Ji Linong, head of the endocrinology department at the People's Hospital of Peking University.

Kang Lei, in charge of diabetes treatment at Sanofi Greater China, said: "The emergence of digital healthcare offers new answers for chronic disease treatment. China's healthcare industry has shifted from the basic model of people seeking medical treatment in hospitals to a model that offers multiple healthcare services in various scenarios." The company is a unit of Sanofi SA, an international healthcare company based in Paris.

"It is expected that with the help of digital healthcare, medical resources across the country will be more balanced, and China's overall medical service level will be raised," Kang said.

A licensed pharmacist (right) instructs a patient in choosing drugs at one of 111 Inc's offline pharmacies in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, in November. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Beijing Anzhen Hospital of Capital Medical University demonstrated a surgery information collection robot at its booth at the 2022 China International Fair for Trade in Services held in Beijing in September.

The robot can track and record surgical images in real time, compile information and broadcast it remotely through a 5G network. At the same time, it can also connect with medical equipment in the operating room and capture images in real time. Now in use at Beijing Anzhen Hospital, it is expected to be applied widely in the country.

The digital healthcare sector has constantly been expanding. In 2021, China's digital healthcare market surged 79.5 percent on a yearly basis to 28.9 billion yuan ($4.1 billion), according to a recent report from market research company AskCI Consulting. The market is forecast to grow to 43.6 billion yuan by the end of this year.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, more users have tended to seek medical services online. In 2021, China's registered users of digital healthcare platforms grew 6.95 percent year-on-year to 707 million, and the number is forecast to reach 810 million by the end of this year, according to AskCI Consulting.

"Ever since the pandemic broke out, residents' habits in terms of hospital visits have constantly been changing," the consulting company's report said. "The volume of internet users has been rapidly growing, and platforms such as internet hospitals, healthcare management sites and e-commerce pharmacies have seen very rapid development. Internet hospitals accounted for 47.9 percent of platforms."

By June, there were over 1,700 internet hospitals in China, according to the 2022 Survey on China's Internet Hospitals released by online healthcare service provider Shandong, Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces have the greatest number of internet hospitals. More public as well as private medical facilities are used for setting up internet hospitals.

The government also has frequently released policies to support the sector. Between 2018 and 2022, China issued 88 policies on internet hospitals, mainly focused on standardizing the price of digital healthcare and promoting public healthcare insurance settlements for online medical services.

In May, the National Medical Products Administration issued a guideline for online drug regulation during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25). It offered specific plans to promote the digital and intelligent transformation of the pharmaceutical industry, and to encourage the comprehensive digital transformation of the country's healthcare system.

In August, the State Administration for Market Regulation issued provisions for the supervision and management of retail online medications, further clarifying the legality of online drug sales and raising standards for the rapidly developing industry. The provisions will take effect on Dec 1.

"To ensure residents' drug safety to the greatest extent, the provisions encourage and assist e-commerce pharmacies in continuing to offer convenience to the public," said Liu Tong, senior vice-president of government relations at Nasdaq-listed online pharmacy 111 Inc. "While the provisions raised compliance requirements for enterprises, they boost the long-term, sustainable development of the industry."

Chen Jia, an independent researcher of international strategies, said: "When the pandemic broke out, the habit of seeing a doctor online became engrained in residents' lives. Digital healthcare is serving as a critical supplement to the public healthcare system, helping local areas take measures in epidemic prevention and control.

"Digital healthcare has changed Chinese patients' habits. Previously, patients waited in line at hospitals to make a doctor's appointment. Now, they can make appointments online in advance. Also, patients' healthcare records are stored online. Their user experience has been greatly improved."

"Looking ahead, to promote the high-quality development of digital healthcare, enterprises should explore niche fields. In addition, digital technologies such as 5G, big data and artificial intelligence should be further applied in the healthcare system, so as to play a bigger role in digital healthcare," said Yuan Shuai, deputy secretary-general of the Rural Revitalization Committee.