China moves a step closer to national health care network with Guizhou data centre
China will soon connect a data centre in remote Guizhou province to four others spread around the country as the latest step in building the infrastructure for a national health care data network.
A regional data centre based in Guiyang, the capital of Southwestern Guizhou province, is expected to open in June, providing the final link to a national health data network whose goal is to provide a personalised health profile for each citizen, ranging from clinical records to dietary guidelines, according to Jin Xiaotao, chairman of China’s Health Information and Big Data Association.
Guizhou will be one of five data centres across the country, each overseeing five to seven neighbouring provinces for “health data collection and integrated analysis”, Jin said at the Big Data Expo held in Guiyang last week.
“Premier Li Keqiang has called for the health industry to grow into a crucial pillar of the national economy,” said Yu, who is former deputy director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission. As an economic pillar, the sector would account for more than 10 per cent of GDP, equal to 8 trillion yuan (US$1.2 trillion) based on last year’s figures.
Considered the “new currency” in the world of health care, data is especially valuable once it is pooled on a mass scale to enable “data mining” to provide clinical and operational insights, Deloitte said in its 2018 Global Health Care Outlook report. Technology companies worldwide are using cloud computing to connect hospital databases and applying algorithm-driven analysis of records like X-rays and retina scans to identify and compare patterns to aid diagnosis.
Nevertheless, the Deloitte report noted that no single organisation in the world currently has all the data required to look at a patient or targeted population in a holistic manner.
Liao Jieyuan, chairman of online health care services provider WeDoctor Holdings, said the government-led data connectivity initiative would provide a tremendous boost to the industry.
“With the launch of a national network, an in-depth exchange of health care data across the country will be realised in three to five years,” he said. Founded in 2010, WeDoctor already claims to be linking up over 2,700 hospitals, 240,000 doctors, 15,000 pharmacies and 27 million monthly active users on its online platform.
Liao still recalls the early days of knocking on the doors of hospitals in various cities trying to convince them of the benefits of cooperation.
The start-up, with early backing from Tencent and more recently AIA Group, operates two business lines – cloud-based health care services for governments, hospitals and institutions, and bricks-and-mortar primary care centres open to individuals. The company also sells medical hardware such as portable all-in-one diagnostic stations and mobile clinical vans for reaching remote regions.
“We have served over 30 million people since the start of the year,” said Liao, adding that local authorities reimburse WeDoctor 6 to 8 yuan for each patient provided with medical services. Earlier this month, the Hangzhou-based company completed a US$500 million round of fundraising led by insurance giant AIA and Hong Kong tycoon Henry Cheng Kar-shun’s infrastructure conglomerate NWS Holdings, which valued it at US$5.5 billion.
In China where the distribution of health care resources is extremely uneven – 7.7 per cent of the top rated hospitals handle half of the nation’s outpatient visits – the use of artificial intelligence is especially needed to empower medical practitioners in less developed regions.
The next phase after a nationwide data network will be connected medical capabilities, Liao said. “It will also spur faster adoption of AI, the biggest breakthrough in health care technology.”
IBM’s Watson supercomputer is among a growing number of AI systems being used in China for private diagnosis and medical treatment consultation. The country reportedly has more than 100 medical AI start-ups that are looking to improve diagnosis and treatment through the application of advanced technology.
Liao said he is confident China will become the biggest market for medical AI applications because it already collects massive amounts of data for other purposes.
“About 2.5 million patients have already paid the government for AI diagnostic services. Have you seen another country on earth with a paid user base of over 100,000?”
AI systems will empower 2 million grass root doctors and bring a marked improvement to the quality of the country’s health care system over the next five to 10 years, he said.
For a heavily regulated and state funded industry like health care, government policies still dictate what can and cannot be done. Earlier in the year a rumoured crackdown by Chinese authorities on so-called internet hospitals affected fundraising activities by some start-ups but the situation improved in April when the State Council approved guidelines to expand the use of internet technologies to boost the medical sector. Internet hospitals provide online consultations and prescriptions from doctors, usually via live video conferencing.
Tech companies can only operate internet hospitals when their medical services are anchored to bricks-and-mortar hospitals, according to the new guidelines.
What may be needed the most is the formal nod from authorities. Liao recalls when vice-premier Sun Chunlan visited WeDoctor’s headquarters in Hangzhou in early May and it was drizzling outside. The vice-premier offered to hold up an umbrella to keep them both dry. “I hope you will hold up an umbrella for China’s health care technologies too,” Liao said.