Chinese Government pushing for integration of Internet technologies with healthcare

According to state media outlets, the Chinese Government is encouraging hospitals around the country to integrate Internet use into their medical practice. The idea is to promote the use of telemedicine systems, allowing patients and doctors from underdeveloped areas to consult with the country’s best doctors, who are often based in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.  

This is part of a broader push to promote Internet Plus [1] healthcare which aims to help alleviate the problem of inaccessible and expensive public health services. At a State Council executive meeting on April 12, presided over by Premier Li Keqiang, a new guideline on the promotion of integrating healthcare with the internet was approved.

The Internet Plus health plan points to where the country’s medical reform is heading and it aims to make it more convenient to see doctors at hospitals, or even at home. This is in line with the Healthy China 2030 Blueprint released by the Party Central Committee and the State Council in October 2016, efforts will be made to foster new industries, new forms and models of business in the health sector and to develop internet-based health services.

In recent years, the number of outpatients at top-level hospitals in major cities has increased steadily. Medical bills are becoming a burden on families, and high-end medical resources fall short of meeting the growing demand of the public.

To address the problem, a two-pronged approach will be adopted. The first will be to establish medical partnerships such as healthcare consortiums to enhance the cooperation and coordination between major hospitals and community clinics. According to the guideline approved at the meeting on April 12, a service system will be established to promote integration across public health, privately contracted doctors, medical supplies and medical insurance reimbursement settlement.

The other is to bring forward Internet Plus healthcare to facilitate the sharing of quality medical resources. The Government will introduce supportive policies to boost sharing of medical information, such as real-time sharing of prescription and drug retail sales within medical institutions, and infrastructure upgrades for hospitals. This will be done in conjunction with measures to ensure the security of personal medical information and the quality of healthcare services.

The government will ensure that long-distance healthcare services cover all healthcare consortiums and county-level hospitals, and that quality medical resources in the country’s eastern areas be made available to the central and western regions.

More efforts will be directed towards the extension of high-speed broadband networks to cover medical institutions at all levels in urban and rural areas. Dedicated Internet access services will be set up to meet the need for long-distance healthcare services.

Medical institutions will be allowed to provide online diagnostic services for some common and chronic diseases in patients’ follow-up visits to their doctors. Hospitals in China are organised according to a 3-tier system based on a hospital's ability to provide medical care, medical education, and conduct medical research. Based on this, hospitals are designated as Primary, Secondary or Tertiary institutions. The top two levels of hospitals within the three-tier hospital system will be encouraged to provide online services, including consultation, reservation and test result inquiry.

An example of a hospital transforming itself according to this plan is Beijing’s China-Japan Friendship Hospital. Here over 50 per cent of patients come from areas outside the capital. Motivated by the government, the hospital is creating an online version of itself, which can diagnose certain illnesses and hand out prescriptions. If a patient is diagnosed with a common disease at the hospital’s outpatient departments, they can go back home with a prescription and doctors can follow their status online. They can also get medicine delivered to their home.

Today many hospitals in china have developed their own applications through which patients can register for an appointment online. At the same time, platforms have been developed to pool resources from different hospitals to make appointments easily for patients.

Hospitals are now being encouraged to divide appointments into different time periods to prevent everyone from coming in at rush hours. Smart hospitals also will be encouraged to help improve efficiency. For instance, in one hospital in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, patients can make appointments, pay bills and see results of checkups on their computers or mobile phones.

The health authority intends to issue detailed online hospital regulations by May. The regulation will be the first of its kind and are expected to drive a significant change in people’s doctor-seeing habits.

Premier Li said, “The development of Internet Plus healthcare is a major initiative to enhance our country’s public health services. It will also help facilitate overall economic and social development.”

Outlining the government’s responsibilities, he added, “The government must step up financial support to establish dedicated internet access services for medical purposes and increase the supply of high-end medical equipment at central hospitals in remote areas. Meanwhile, the government must enact related support policies, exercise prudent supervision and set up a sustainable mechanism to effectively tackle this important issue of public well-being.”

[1] Internet Plus was proposed by Premier Le Keqiang in 2015 with the aim of integrating traditional industries with Internet technologies and creating a new growth engine and promote the transformation and upgrading of the economy.

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