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Chen Xiaofang, a nurse at Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital, operates a robot to deliver supplies to patients in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, on September 26. Photo: SCMP/Simon Song

Huawei hopes smart hospitals with 5G and AI can offset shrinking smartphone business

  • A hospital in Guangzhou showed off this week how it is using Huawei’s 5G, AI and IoT technologies to upgrade its health care services
  • Huawei is betting on a global trend towards smarter enterprise services to help ease the impact of US sanctions on its smartphone business
A day after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co, returned to China with a hero’s welcome, the telecoms equipment maker organised a media tour to showcase how its technologies can serve the country‘s health care industry as the company searches for new revenue sources in the face of crippling US sanctions.

The tour was arranged long before the return of Meng, who landed in Shenzhen on Saturday night after nearly three years fighting an extradition legal battle in Canada. But the trip to Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital, in the provincial capital of Guangzhou, highlighted continuing challenges for Shenzhen-based Huawei as it shifts away from smartphones to services and industrial applications after being cut off from buying or producing advanced chips.

On Sunday, the hospital showed off how Huawei technology enabled it to turn ambulances into makeshift hospitals, with smart computed tomography (CT) scanning and electrocardiogram machines that offer instant examinations and diagnoses on the road. All the data collected is also transmitted to the hospital in real time.

Liu Xingtao, an emergency doctor at Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital, introduces how ambulances use 5G technologies for real-time communication with the hospital in Guangzhou on September 26. Photo: SCMP/Simon Song

These sorts of hi-tech, time-saving techniques are also increasingly being used elsewhere in the world, allowing consultations to happen on the way to a hospital and operations to be conducted upon arrival. For time-sensitive emergencies, such as a stroke, this could save a patient’s life.

As the world’s largest provider of 5G equipment, Huawei now wants to use artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) in its home country to make “smarter” hospitals, which the company sees as a new business opportunity.
With an increased focus on health care, Huawei’s enterprise business aims to provide hospitals with 5G technologies, cloud computing and servers, and online platforms, according to Guo Zizhong, director of the company’s Smart Hospital Business Division in China.
Tian Junzhang, President of the Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital, introduces how the hospital's wards and ambulances apply 5G technology to give better and quicker services to patients on September 26, 20 21. Photo: Simon Song
“The ageing population in China and the government’s efforts to solve the issue is making the health care industry a blue ocean market,” Guo told the South China Morning Post. “The digitisation of the health care industry will present lots of opportunities for tech companies like us.”
The company is also looking to give other industries a technological upgrade, including coal mining and pig farming, and expanding its efforts in cloud services.

With new business forays, the company is looking for ways to survive US sanctions that have all but killed what was once China’s leading smartphone business. Unlike smartphones, enterprise products typically do not rely on leading-edge semiconductors and require fewer chips.

Huawei was first added to Washington’s Entity List in May 2019, cutting it off from US technologies like Google apps and services. Restrictions were tightened last year to cover any chips or related tools developed or produced using US technologies.

For the first half of this year, however, Huawei’s revenue fell 29.4 per cent year on year to 320 billion yuan (US$49.5 billion). Sales from its consumer business, consisting mostly of smartphone sales, nearly halved to 135.7 billion yuan from 255.8 billion yuan in the same period last year.

Huawei rotating chairman Eric Xu Zhijun said in a speech last Friday that the US sanctions have cost the company at least US$30 billion per year and that it would be difficult to make up the losses with new businesses.

Lao Weidong, Director of the Emergency Center of the Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital talks about how 5G technology is used in medical emergency response on September 27, 2021. Photo: Simon Song
One of the challenges to boosting 5G revenue is that consumers might not see a compelling reason to upgrade right now. However, the technology still has the power to transform industries and enterprises, which is where Huawei sees opportunity, according to Paul Scanlan, chief technology officer of Huawei’s Carrier Business Group.

“If the market is very saturated with consumers and a high demand for video traffic, it makes sense to deploy 5G for consumers,” Scanlan said on Sunday. “But every country has hospitals, manufacturing, agriculture and education, so you can deploy 5G in a very different way and at very different times.”

In its collaboration with Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital, for example, Huawei uses 5G to power an “intelligent brain” with real time data on things like traffic flows and medical supplies, according to the hospital. That data can then be shared and analysed for better hospital management. Sensors and devices throughout the wards are already being used to send alerts to nurse smartwatches, offering information on things like when a patient has fallen or a bag of intravenous fluid is running dry.

Chen Xiaofang, a nurse, checks the transfusion process of a patient at the Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital in Guangzhou on September 26. Photo: SCMP/Simon Song

The hospital is also using robots connected to the network to disinfect the facility and deliver medicine. The hospital’s rescue team, known for helping relief efforts in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, has also equipped its fleet with 5G so doctors can give remote instructions to frontline medical workers performing operations in the team’s truck.

Tian Junzhang, the hospital’s president, said the facility has pledged 80 million to 100 million yuan for 5G, AI and big data upgrades. It is an “inevitable trend” for the health care industry, Tian said during a media tour, to which the Post was invited.

“We have completed the ‘digitisation’ of the hospital by moving data online, and we’re currently in the process of ‘intelligentisation’, where the data are analysed to help us make better decisions,” Tian said. “In three years, we’re expecting a broader adoption of AI in health care, and patients can receive medical services at home without going to the hospital.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Huawei pins hopes on smart health care