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Medical IT changes China's healthcare landscape
  • By Song Soo-youn
  • Published 2019.05.16 16:33
  • Updated 2019.05.16 16:33
  • comments 0

The advancement of information and technology (IT) is quickly changing the scenes of university hospitals in China where patients used to hire part-timers to queue in a long line to see a doctor.

As mobile healthcare and digital medicine made it easier for Chinese patients to visit a hospital, gone are the days when hospitals looked like a street market. Many hospitals got rid of reception counters, and patients receive treatment only at a hospital.

It has been a long time since university hospitals in China started to streamline functions unnecessary for patient care.

Chinese patients used to wait in the lobby for a long time at a university hospital to see a doctor. (Credit: Lee Sang-gyu, a professor at the Hospital Management Department of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of Public Health)

People who have seen Chinese medical institutions actively using IT to magnify efficiency say Korea is already lagging behind China in IT in the medical sector.

Lee Sang-gyu, a professor at the Hospital Management Department of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of Public Health, is one of them. Lee joined the Yonsei University Health System’s project of establishing Qingdao-Severance Hospital in the initial stage. He visited China scores of times to observe several medical institutions from 2014 to August 2018.

In a recent interview with Korea Biomedical Review, Lee shared how fast Chinese IT in medicine was advancing, taking an example of the Second Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University College of Medicine in Hangzhou, China.

Chinese university hospital abandons reception counter

The hospital at Zhejiang University Lee witnessed several years ago was densely crowded with patients waiting to see a doctor. When he got back in 2016, however, the hospital was relatively slow. There was no long line of patients who used to fill the entire first floor. There was no reception counter, either.

The change came with Alibaba’s introduction of “Future Hospital” system the Chinese tech giant developed in May 2014. The system provides some functions on the mobile.

A patient makes a reservation at a hospital via Future Hospital mobile application and visits the hospital at the appointment time. This means that patients do not have to get a number at the reception and wait for the name to be called. When a patient arrives in the hospital, the system notifies it to the corresponding department and provides the patient with directions.

After seeing a doctor, the patient does not have to wait to pay. He or she can make the payment via mobile phone and checks the result of an examination. Drugs prescribed by the doctor will be delivered to the patient’s home through an app called “Ali Health.” The hospital deals with patient care only.

Alibaba’s Future Hospital app also recommends a desirable department and a specialist depending on symptoms.

“The system is already available in Chinese medical institutions. Except for diagnosis and treatment that should take place at the hospital, patients don’t have to come to the hospital for a reservation, payment, and check of the exam outcome,” Lee said. “The system recently introduced artificial intelligence (AI) to let patients know which department they should go to, based on their symptoms.”

To pay the medical bills, the mobile app informs the patient both the total cost and the patient’s contribution, Lee went on to explain.

“You push a single button, then the payment is done,” he said, adding that to equip hospitals with such system, hospitals need data from the national health insurance agency. In the Chinese case, that data went to Alibaba.

“The Zhejiang University Hospital, which adopted this system, got rid of the reception counter. Many Korean university hospitals hire an external contractor to run the counter and spend about 10 billion won ($8.3 million) on operating it,” Lee said. “It might cost about 20-30 billion won to build a system like Future Hospital, but once it’s built, we can cut over 10 billion won every year.”

China standardizes medical info, share them on cloud

Professor Lee Sang-gyu of the Hospital Management Department at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of Public Health speaks during an interview with Korea Biomedical Review.

Once China completes standardizing medical information, related technologies will get advanced quickly, Lee predicted. The National Health and Family Planning Commission in China plans to standardize all medical institutions’ records and manage them on the cloud.

“Standardizing medical records and uploading them to cloud will allow hospitals to share information. Qingdao's medical records have already been standardized. As major IT firms are supplying the standardization system, it is becoming popular rapidly,” Lee said.

Lee noted that the Chinese government is playing a crucial role to push forward innovation in healthcare. Medical expenses in China are surging so fast that some analysts forecast China’s total spending on healthcare will reach $1 trillion by 2020, the second largest after that of the U.S.

The supply of medical service is failing to catch up with the explosively growing demand, which made the Chinese government support actively investment in the private sector, he said.

Korean IT experts concentration in game industry causes supply shortage for healthcare

Lee said it was lamentable that Korea’s healthcare industry was in limbo in IT advancement, as opposed to China. Not only the government’s policy is fallible, but there was a short supply of experts to lead the healthcare innovation, he said.

“For a Korean university hospital to upgrade a medical information system, it costs scores of billions of won. However, the bigger problem than the money is that we don’t have professionals. The lack of competent programmers is holding the industry back,” Lee said. Talented engineers and programmers rush to the game industry because it pays them better, he added.

“This is a serious issue. Because there is no market for healthcare IT, no capital or workforce is coming,” Lee said.


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