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China tech

China's telemedicine boom sparks mad rush for doctors

Tech giants from JD.com to Alibaba ramp up expansion in fast-growing field

As demand for remote care surges, telemedicine service providers are pushing to recruit China's 3.86 million doctors.   © Reuters

DALIAN, China/HONG KONG -- When 30-year-old Li's eyes began hurting in April, he decided to try out JD Health's telemedicine service instead of visiting a doctor's office.

Before he knew it, the Beijing resident spoke online with a doctor and had medicated eyedrops delivered to his home.

"I'd still go to the hospital for something serious, but telemedicine is very convenient for minor issues," Li said.

JD Health, a subsidiary of e-retailer JD.com, is one of four key players in Chinese telemedicine, a list that includes companies under Alibaba Group Holding, Tencent Holdings and Ping An Insurance Group. With demand for remote care surging in response to the coronavirus pandemic, these businesses are pushing to recruit China's 3.86 million doctors onto their apps to solidify their foothold in a rapidly growing industry.

At a JD Health office in Beijing, rows upon rows of doctors sit in front of computers doling out medical advice through instant message, voice calls or video chats. They work in three shifts to ensure 24-hour service.

Rates depend on the doctor, but a 15-minute video appointment usually costs around 50 yuan ($7.80) -- about the top range of what a public hospital typically would charge.

One of the doctors, Wang Chunye, left his job at a public hospital in 2019 to join JD Health full time, drawn by the possibilities in online-based care.

"It's not that different from an in-person exam when you use video," Wang said.

JD.com raised the number of doctors registered on its platform to about 110,000 in 2020, up by roughly 12 times from the year prior.

Wang Chunye communicates with patients online at a JD Health office in Beijing. Patients can choose to receive care in one of three formats: instant message, voice calls or video chat. (Photo by Shin Watanabe)

Ping An Healthcare and Technology, operator of the Ping An Good Doctor app, increased the number of doctors on its platform by 240% in 2020 to about 23,000. Alibaba Health Information Technology, owned by e-retailer Alibaba, logged a 43% increase to about 60,000.

WeDoctor, which is nearly 9% owned by internet services provider Tencent, also anticipates a boost from its current total of over 270,000.

Most of these doctors work full time elsewhere and provide online care via apps in their free time for extra cash. About 10% of China's doctors are thought to be on telemedicine apps, and the figure is only expected to rise.

Telemedicine began gaining momentum in China in 2015, when the government legalized health care providers that operated only online. The market has expanded drastically during the pandemic, which highlighted the advantages of remote care.

The option is generally more expensive than an in-person appointment. While public hospitals usually charge 10 yuan to 50 yuan per visit, JD Health's charge can reach as high as about 1,000 yuan. Platforms are racing to secure popular and respected doctors, who typically command higher rates.

China's digital health care market grew 44% to 314 billion yuan in 2020, and could hit 4.2 trillion yuan by 2030, American research company Frost & Sullivan said. China is the world's largest spender on medical care after the U.S., and there is hope of even further growth.

Alibaba Health counted 520 million users for the year through March, while Ping An hit 370 million in 2020. The latter also uses data collected from telemedicine patients to power other services, like doctor recommendations based on specific symptoms.

But challenges remain. Telemedicine still focuses on repeat patients, and companies are struggling to recover their investments into the field from the relatively limited pool of customers. Though Alibaba Health turned a net profit for the fiscal year ended in March, the other three providers remained in the red in their most recent annual results.

Linking telemedicine to the parent company's other services, like online drug sales and insurance, will be crucial, UBS analyst Tan Yawen said.

No official guidelines exist on how to avoid misdiagnoses and other potential issues in the field. Companies must work to ensure safe, quality care on their online platforms.

China's crackdown against domestic tech giants looms heavy as well. Ping An Health ended Wednesday in Hong Kong at 88.45 Hong Kong dollars, roughly 40% under its February peak. JD Health also has fallen over 40% since nearly tripling its offer price in December.

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