China
Internet hospitals play an increasingly important role in China's healthcare system
By Xia Yuanyuan  ·  2021-05-21  ·   Source: ChinAfrica

  

Doctors in Jiangsu Province Hospital have a virtual consultation with patients via an online medical platform on February 7, 2020 (XINHUA) 

On April 8, Zhao Jiuliang, a rheumatology immunologist at Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing, attended to patients as usual. However, instead of seeing the patients in-person, this time, he did virtual consultation through video link on the hospital's online medical platform. 

Through such e-consultations, Zhao offers diagnosis and prescription to patients. In one and a half hour, he received 16 patients, most of whom were based in cities outside Beijing.

"For simple problems, patients no longer need to travel far to a hospital, and patients with chronic or common diseases can renew prescriptions online. This not only saves patients' money on commuting, but also enables doctors to spend more time on treating patients with more serious diseases," said Zhao.

Peking Union Medical College Hospital, a renowned public hospital in China, was the first in the city to get approval for Internet-based medical services by the Beijing Municipal Health Commission on March 26. Currently, 19 departments, including cardiology, endocrinology and dermatology, offer e-consultations, enabling patients to review their medical history, consult a doctor and get prescriptions online.

China has been promoting the development of online healthcare since 2018, and the COVID-19 outbreak further underscored the importance of the sector. According to Mao Qunan, Director of the Planning Department of the National Health Commission, by March 23, more than 7,700 hospitals above the second level have established online appointment systems for diagnosis and treatment across the country.

Bridging the distance 

Now, in China, Internet hospital has become a service platform that integrates online appointment, consultation, prescription and delivery of medicine, and online and offline diagnosis and treatment.

For Lan Fangying, a chronic illness was both expensive and time-consuming, as it would take the 67-year-old an entire day to visit the nearest county hospital from her home in Lanjiayao Village, Shanxi Province in north China, to undergo medical tests.

Diagnosed with coronary heart disease along with hypertension, Lan was amazed to find out in January last year that she could have her electrocardiographs and blood tests done at the clinic in her village, and have them reviewed by doctors at a large hospital in Beijing.

Previously, Lan had to spend a whole day on commuting to and queuing in the county hospital, and sometimes even had to stay overnight if it was too late to make it back to the village. For her, seeing a doctor in big cities was even more difficult.

"However, now, there's no need for the trip. I can video-chat with experts in Beijing after making an appointment on the hospital's official app," Lan told ChinAfrica. "Seeing a doctor online is cheaper and much more convenient."

Jiao Yahui, an official from the National Health Commission, said that there are two types of Internet hospitals. One is an online extension of an offline hospital, where the hospital uses Internet platforms as well as information technology to offer medical services. The other type is a medical-platform entity created by Internet companies, which pools medical resources for the platform.

Noting that many hospitals have now developed their own apps where patients can register, make appointments and consult online, she said this has helped to pool resources across different hospitals to easily make appointments for patients.

  

A doctor presents the online medical platform of Jiangsu Province Hospital (XINHUA)  

Rapid growth  

The outbreak of COVID-19 epidemic gave an unexpected boost to the development of the online healthcare industry. And the industry played an important role in curbing the spread of the virus.

During the epidemic, Chinese public hospitals and companies launched free online medical consultation services in an effort to reduce cross-infections and ease pressure on hospitals.

Five hospitals in Anhui Province of east China started offering online diagnosis and treatment of patients with fever on their official WeChat accounts on January 24.

Patients can access free consultation services via video, voice or text on their cellphone and doctors can check patients' inspection reports and offer advice online.

Many other provinces have also launched such platforms to relieve the pressure on hospitals and contain the spread of the virus. Dozens of hospitals in east China's Shandong and Zhejiang provinces have opened online fever clinic services.

China's e-commerce giants such as Alibaba have also entered into the online healthcare industry. Alibaba launched free consultation services on its online shopping platform Taobao and mobile payment app Alipay, where hundreds of professional doctors from all over the country are providing medical services.

Its service homepage received nearly 400,000 visits within 24 hours after the launch, 97 percent of which were from Hubei Province, which was hit the hardest by the epidemic in China, according to data from service provider AliHealth.

"A large number of patients and doctors embraced online medical services during the epidemic. People's recognition of online healthcare has greatly increased and it will permanently change how people in China use technology for consulting a doctor," said Ma Li, Vice President of Alibaba Health.

Enhancing supervision

The popularity of online healthcare has stimulated the introduction of more supportive policies. In 2018, a guideline on the promotion of integrating healthcare with the Internet was approved at a State Council executive meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang.

According to the guideline, a service system will be established to promote integration in areas such as public health, privately contracted doctors, medical supplies and medical insurance reimbursement settlement.

However, problems remain for some Internet hospitals, where patients cannot get timely treatment or have unpleasant experience when consulting doctors.

"Ensuring the professionalism and authority of online doctors and hospitals is a challenge for Internet hospitals," said Pan Jiyang, Director of the psychiatry department of No. 1 Hospital affiliated to Jinan University in Guangzhou. "Therefore, efforts are required to further strengthen the supervision of the industry. A sound and comprehensive development of online healthcare industry needs time to be perfect," Pan said.

(Print Edition Title: Healthcare Without Barriers)  

Comments to xyy@chinafrica.cn 

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