Alibaba pioneers online doctor consultations, round-the-clock medicine delivery
New service offers support to China’s primary care system, which remains saddled by an uneven distribution of resources and lack of quality general practitioners
In China, seeking treatment for something as minor as a cold can mean hours spent waiting at a hospital to see a doctor.
That may ease with a new 24-hour medicine delivery and online medical consultation service rolled out by Alibaba Group Holding, which owns the South China Morning Post, as part of its online-to-offline New Retail strategy.
New York-listed Alibaba launched the new feature on its Taobao Marketplace platform so users can seek medical advice or medication whenever required. Searching the term jiyongyao, which translates to “need medicine urgently” in Mandarin, will redirect users to an online page where the options for over-the-counter medicine or medical advice can be found.
Orders for over-the-counter medication can be delivered within 30 minutes during the day and an hour at night, according to Alibaba. Deliveries are initially available to Taobao users in Hangzhou, capital of the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang and home base of Alibaba.
Online consultations with a doctor are handled by a platform run by Alibaba Health Information Technology (AliHealth), the Hong Kong-traded health care flagship of Alibaba.
That Alibaba offering was introduced weeks after Tencent Doctorwork, a medical unit of Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings, unveiled a merger with Shanghai-based network start-up Trusted Doctors, to create a large private health care network that offers an ecosystem of both online and offline services.
China’s major internet players are pushing into day-to-day services as a way to keep users glued to their ecosystem of services.
By combining online and offline experiences in their services, both Alibaba and Tencent will also be able to gather a treasure trove of data about user behaviour, while helping to optimise processes for medical practitioners.
Alibaba and Tencent’s moves also showed how internet players are capable of supporting China’s primary care system, which remains saddled by an uneven distribution of resources and lack of quality general practitioners that has left large hospitals to bear the brunt of treating patients.
China suffers from a shortage of doctors relative to many countries. The intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average is 3.19 doctors for every 1,000 people, while China only has 2.22 doctors per 1,000.
China has also seen explosive growth of chronic diseases in recent years, with about 110 million Chinese suffering from diabetes, and another 330 million dealing with hypertension, or high blood pressure.
What sets apart the efforts being made by major internet companies like Alibaba and Tencent is that they are building on top of services that are conveniently accessed by the world’s biggest online community through their smartphones, tablets and personal computers.
The stakes are high for China’s major internet companies, as the country’s health care sector is forecast to reach US$1.1 trillion by 2020.
Health care represents an opportunity for Alibaba to further grow its on-demand local services business, which is led by food delivery subsidiary Ele.me. AliHealth earlier this month bought a 15 per cent stake in pharmacy chain Guizhou Ensure for about 421 million yuan (US$61.7 million), after spending 454 million yuan in June to buy close to 10 per cent of pharmacy chain Shuyu Civilian Pharmacy Corp.