August 28, 2014 12:00 am JST

Mobile tech easing China's health care inefficiencies

VALENTINA LUO, Contributing writer

BEIJING -- Lin Zhongying used to resist going to the doctor for her regular blood-sugar tests. But the 59-year-old Fujian Province housewife, a diabetic for 10 years, has dutifully taken them twice a week since her daughter, He Wenjun, bought her a blood-glucose meter three months ago. Her daughter calls immediately after each test to discuss the results.

     She knows when to call because the meter has a built-in SIM module that instantly sends the results to He's phone. An only child, He works downtown, far from her mother's home, and rarely has time to visit. She worries constantly about her mother's condition, and the new device gives her more peace of mind. "Now, she can't just lie to me about how serious it is," He said. "It has changed both our lives."

Chronic killer

China is aging fast. Nearly a third of the country's population of 1.4 billion -- or about 430 million people -- will be over 60 by 2015, according to official projections. Most of them were born in the post-1950 baby boom under Mao Zedong and many, like Lin, have only one child because of the population-control policy introduced in 1979.

     The public health challenge is massive. Chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular ailments are the biggest killer. About 260 million people -- 100 million of whom are over 60 -- suffer from such health problems, which account for 85% of total annual deaths, according to the government.

     The country's roughly 13,500 public hospitals, most of them underfunded, are struggling to keep pace. For most people, these facilities are the primary health care providers, even though a five-minute visit with a doctor can involve hours of waiting.

     Often, patients with chronic diseases do not stay on top of their treatment. "Regular self-monitoring of their condition, be it blood-glucose levels or blood pressure, is extremely crucial," said Hui Yulun, an analyst at GF Securities. "But many of these patients don't realize that, or don't know how to do it."

     Only 10% of urban patients and 3% of those in rural areas regularly self-monitor their blood-glucose levels, according to local media reports. Traditionally, younger family members have handled the task of ensuring that their elders get the tests they need. But the old family structures are crumbling just as fast as lifestyles are shifting in China.

     The problems resulting from these changes have propelled the rise of so-called mobile health care services aimed at providing a much-needed dose of convenience for patients and hospitals alike.

     Take, for example, a smartphone app called Haodaifu, or "good doctor." Users can select a medical specialist from a list of some 300,000 doctors and conduct consultations without leaving their homes, sparing them the hassle of going to a hospital.

Easier way to pay

Online payments are also gaining popularity in health care. China's e-commerce leader, Alibaba, is also the company behind Alipay, the country's most popular online settlement service. Since May, Alipay has teamed up with hospitals nationwide to offer a service that enables people to make medical appointments and payments, and even check their medical records, online. At some of these hospitals, over 20% of payments are made via mobile phone, according to 21cbh, a Shanghai-based financial newspaper. An estimated 20% of China's hospitals allow payments through mobile apps.

     Alibaba also sells pharmaceuticals online through its business-to-customer arm Tianmao. Online drug sales in China totaled 420 million yuan ($68.2 million) in 2013, according to Sino Health, a medical news website operator. Sino Health estimates that figure will expand by over 60% this year.

     In a 2012 report on public health strategy to 2020, the government emphasized its support of the online movement in health care. Underscoring this is the central government's decision to earmark 61.1 billion yuan to build a nationwide electronic health care system. Including initiatives by local governments, public investment in the project could exceed 100 trillion yuan, said Beijing-based iiMedia Research.

     Wearable electronic health gauges, or wearables, are the hottest trend in elderly health care these days. Like Lin's blood-glucose meter, these devices closely monitor the user's health and automatically upload the data to a database that is maintained by health care personnel. When the patient feels sick or the data shows an abnormality, medical workers are immediately alerted.

These gadgets can mean the difference between life and death. Life Care Networks, a Beijing-based company, for example, makes wristwatches that monitor the heart. Should the wearer suffer a heart attack, an emergency center is automatically contacted and will respond within 10 minutes.

Popular demand

Many IT manufacturers want in on the action. Huawei Technologies, for example, has released a product called the TalkBand, a wristband that tracks the user's sleep and exercise data. It even comes with an app that links the band to the popular WeChat social media service so users can share the data online if they wish.

     "Health wristbands have a shorter product life cycle and are more popular among fashion-savvy consumers," said Yan Jinyuan, chief executive of Biolight, a Guangzhou-based maker of health-monitoring equipment. "Some manufacturers come up with really cool concepts that sound attractive for a short time but are hard to maintain steady sales with. More professional, technologically mature products take longer to develop and gain approval from medical institutes, but they often provide more accurate services."

     The most interesting wearable in China, however, may be the QR code badges that are reportedly being distributed in many cities to help seniors who get lost or otherwise find themselves in trouble. The badges contain vital information, including data for contacting family members.

     Just like mother-and-daughter duo Lin and He, China is getting smarter about health. Yet the government's challenge seems as daunting as ever.

     "We've spent huge amounts of money on the health industry in the past few years," said Lei Haichao, chief of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Health, "but it hasn't bought us much more health."

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