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Credit Suisse Research Institute: China's tech giants transform healthcare sector with cutting-edge technologies

The Credit Suisse Research Institute released its 'Healthcare Transformation' report, which analyzes the impact of technology on the future of the sector and the way in which Chinese tech giants are paving the way with smart health services. The report is based on the work of leading healthcare and business academics from the Universities of Pennsylvania and St. Gallen.

In a chapter on China's technology giants delivering smart health services, Dr. Alexander Braun and Niklas Häusle of the University of St. Gallen conclude that Chinese tech giants such as Ping An, Tencent and Alibaba are building healthcare ecosystems to improve customer experience and plug the gaps in the medically underserved country.

Fast growing but medically underserved

The Chinese healthcare service industry is expected to reach RMB 8 trillion in revenues by 2020 (Figure 1), which is around three times as much as 10 years ago[i], driven by rising income levels and the higher life expectancy of Chinese customers.

However, the Chinese healthcare system faces a number of challenges linked to China's transformation from an emerging market to an industrial country. The biggest of these is related to China's demographic transition to an aging society, which is exacerbated further by the one-child policy. The country is also facing an extreme shortage of qualified personal and overworked doctors, particularly in the rural areas, and hospitals are severely understaffed. While countries such as Switzerland and Germany have a medical doctor density of 42 per 10,000 people, China's stands at only 18[ii].

Tackling the healthcare gaps with cutting-edge technologies

To address these challenges, the Chinese tech giants are building their own healthcare ecosystems, using cutting-edge technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced biometrics.  They aim to provide a faster and better way to meet the increasing demand for healthcare services and significantly reduce waiting times through AI-assisted online consultation services. With internet-supported telemedicine, essential medical services can also be provided to remote rural areas.

  • Ping An healthcare ecosystem: Ping An's healthcare ecosystem is based on three entities: the client (patient), medical service providers (clinics, doctors or pharmacies), and payers (insurance companies and the Chinese government). Its health service ecosystem has over 265 million healthcare portal users and approximately 3,000 participating hospitals. This creates strong network effects and synergies in the health service industry.  Ping An bases its healthcare operations on modern technologies such as AI, blockchain technology and cloud computing.
  • Tencent healthcare ecosystem: Tencent is building its healthcare ecosystem inside its Wechat ecosystem. Tencent's healthcare portal Doctorwork connects over 10 million patients with around 440,000 certified doctors and 30,000 hospitals, providing AI-assisted screening and consultation. Tencent is also developing medical chatbots and clinical decision support software to increase the efficiency of its online consultation network. To complete its vast ecosystem, Tencent offers the WeSure insurance service through partnerships with over 20 insurance companies.
  • Alibaba healthcare ecosystem: Alibaba is building its ecosystem around central healthcare functions and is targeting wellness and health lifestyle products to enhance the "health and happiness" of its customers. On the technology side, it also features an AI diagnostic system called DoctorYou, which assists doctors in their diagnosis and decision-making. Furthermore, Alibaba operates an AI-assisted processing system called ET Medical Brain. Since Alibaba Cloud is the biggest cloud service provider in China, it can exploit its market-leading position to collect data more easily.

AI: the answer to modern healthcare

This is a golden era for AI, says Dr. Lyle Ungar of the University of Pennsylvania, in a chapter on AI and healthcare: the road to modern health. He believes AI promises to radically change healthcare, "democratizing" it by supporting patient access to online automated medical diagnosis, allowing people to collect and analyze far more "medical" data at home, personalizing healthcare delivery, supporting phone-based behavioral health intervention, and changing how people communicate with doctors and hospitals.

There is a clear need for discussion on how AI systems, their developers, and the companies that use them should be regulated, according to Dr. Martin Eling and Martin Lehmann of the University of St. Gallen in a chapter on the regulatory response to AI in healthcare. They suggest the need to regulate AI does not come as a surprise if we consider how the internet of the 21st century has, to some extent, become a lawless territory where companies and individuals are exposed to many unregulated risks that they are struggling to control.

Urs Rohner, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Credit Suisse Group and Chairman of the Credit Suisse Research Institute, commented: "The future of the healthcare sector brings huge opportunities from the digital revolution – be it artificial intelligence, robotics or personalized medicine. But it is equally important for us to address some of the upcoming challenges we will have to face collectively as the sector evolves."