Leverage big data to enhance medical experience

Cao Xinyu
By embracing Internet, traditional hospitals can improve efficiency.
Cao Xinyu

Long queues are not uncommon in Chinese hospitals. When I came down with a flu earlier this month, I was in those queues. Amid coughing and sneezing of other flu patients and my own, I waited long enough to take a blood test, get the results, see the doctor and get medications. Frustrating as it might be, it also increased the risk of cross infection.

This situation is likely to change. Last April, the State Council issued guidelines that permit the setting up of Internet hospitals. Internet hospitals include those set up by offline, traditional hospitals, as well as those launched by Internet enterprises with support from brick-and-mortar hospitals. They will lead to the alliance of online health care and offline hospitals.

One major reason why hospitals, especially university-affiliated ones in big cities, are usually packed is people’s rising demand for health care. This demand is possibly driven by the aging population and expanded health insurance coverage. And instead of going to community hospitals, many people feel safer to be treated by specialists in major hospitals, even for mild symptoms.

By embracing Internet, traditional hospitals can improve efficiency. For patients, seeking outpatient service online saves trips to hospitals. It is especially convenient for senior patients requiring long-term treatment or prescription refill.

In the past, Internet hospitals were chiefly involved in making appointment and offering consultancy, rather than in diagnosis and treatment. Now after joining hands with traditional hospitals, Internet hospitals are backed by higher quality medical resources.

Consequently, patients can now get on the platform of Internet hospitals and contact doctors via a webcam. They can consult doctors about their conditions without the trouble of registration or waiting in lines. After uploading medical files, they can obtain diagnosis and prescription from doctors.

The guidelines aforementioned stipulate the range of online medical service. It is to provide follow-ups by contract-based family physicians to patients with common and chronic diseases. It is not allowed for first-visit patients. Only physicians with at least three years of clinical experience are eligible. Electronic prescriptions have to be approved by licensed pharmacists. Medications can be sent to patients via a third party entrusted by medical institutions and pharmaceutical companies.

Patients are the ultimate beneficiary. No matter where they come from, they can have access to consultations by medical specialists based in megacities. In a sense Internet hospitals promise to break down geographical barriers.

Many traditional hospitals are beginning to take advantage of the Internet technology. The upgraded Beijing Tiantan Hospital is an example. There, the maternity wards are equipped with anti-theft system. Every new-born wears an intelligent ankle bracelet. Once the baby is taken away from designated areas, the bracelet will automatically sound an alarm. Facial recognition systems are installed in public areas. Should blacklisted scalpers set their foot in the hospital, they will be detected right away.

Many hurdles

Last September, the Internet Hospital under Beijing Hospital, the first of this kind, went online, according to a Beijing Daily report. Through a few taps on the mobile application, patients can receive outpatient navigation and video consultation from the medical team in a top hospital. The fees for online outpatient service is the same as in the offline hospital. However, the online medical service cannot yet be covered by medical insurance.

The integration of Internet hospital and traditional hospital is still in its infancy and has many hurdles to clear.

According to an editorial in the People’s Daily, for some reason, traditional hospitals are not open enough to share their core resources with Internet companies.

This makes it difficult to establish a sustainable business model between traditional and Internet hospitals.

Moreover, data silos still exist. Test results from different hospitals can’t be mutually recognized, let alone share these data with online hospitals. As some insiders of health care industry put it, now medical files and data can only be shared within the medical alliance, which usually consists of hospitals at different levels in the same region.

Leveraging information technologies like big data and cloud computing can deliver better patient experience and improve health care quality.

It may also remit the uneven distribution of medical resources, which is likely concentrated in first-tier cities.

Still, questions remain. In traditional hospitals, there’s a set of quality control standards for diagnosis and treatment. But there are no such provisions with online medical service.

This raises some questions: How to conduct quality control of Internet hospitals? How to monitor online treatment, deal with medical disputes, and incorporate online service into the medical insurance? All these call for the legislations to give the answers.

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