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There’s a medical app for that : How China turned to telehealth during the coronavirus


When tech entrepreneur Alvin Foo first moved to Shanghai 15 years ago, his experience of visiting a doctor usually meant joining a long line at a hospital: “The way that people go to hospital in the past was … if you needed to go and see a doctor, the first thing that you need to do is, you need to get a number. And once you get a number, usually you have to queue,” he told CNBC by phone.

“Some people … started queuing the night before,” Foo added.

Foo, co-founder of cryptocurrency investment firm DAOventures, described a time when his wife arrived at a skin hospital at 4 a.m., but by the time she got to the front of the line, all the allocated appointments were gone. “That’s the kind of pain that a lot of Chinese people, the patients (would) have to actually deal with,” he said.

Those with the means might hire someone to wait in line for them, an illegal practice that Chinese authorities have clamped down on, but the combination of a population of 1.4 billion and a lack of medical staff means demand still outstrips supply.

What changed life for Foo and millions of others in China has been the launch of online appointment booking and consultations from the likes of Tencent-backed WeDoctor, which has reported having around 250,000 doctors registered on its platform, and Ping An Good Doctor, which claims to have more than 340 million registered users. During the coronavirus outbreak, these platforms and other giants such as JD Health offered free online consultations, which has accelerated their uptake.

“People can now freely consult a doctor, unlike in the past where it was a pain even just to get a … number to seek consultation,” Foo told CNBC.

While there are still lines and long waiting times for in-person appointments, these pushes into online medicine by tech giants, as well as moves from the state, are set to help the Chinese telehealth market reach $54.2 billion by 2025, according to a UBS estimate (see chart). The firm’s “Future of Humans” report, published in September, estimated its current value as $8.6 billion, and suggested China’s market would outstrip the U.S. market in 2023.

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