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Is telehealth changing health care in China?

Telehealth has been advancing at a fever pace in the past few years. How are doctors using it in China, and what benefits will increased implementation bring to those living in the country?

Posted on Apr 06, 2016 by Rob McBroom


For years, the preferred solution for expats and locals living in smaller cities in China who wanted to seek quality health care has been to travel to larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing, both of which are populated with great hospitals and care centers. Expats with time and enough funds can travel even further afield to cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bangkok to receive care from fine facilities in the world.

The problem is, travelling for care may not always be feasible, and while China is working to improve its health care industry, those living in tier two, three, and four cities often don't have immediate access to the quality of care they would prefer, let alone western trained doctors. Largely because of this, a new form of care has started to really gain traction in the country: telehealth.


What exactly is telehealth?

Telehealth has come to be a broad term that is used to define any health related services that are provided over available forms of telecommunications such as the phone and internet. Some examples of this in use include a doctor talking with a patient over an app like WeChat, or even a surgeon controlling a robot to conduct a surgery from another location.

While the basic idea of telehealth has been around as long as phones have been in hospitals - one doctor calling another for their opinion is considered a function of telehealth - it has really started to take off in the past decade. For example, the first telesurgery was conducted in 2001 and has since been tested in a number of other trials with some doctors using it to assist surgeons with less experience.

Because technology has become integrated into daily life, elements of telehealth such as doctors emailing prescriptions to pharmacies, have become deeply integrated into the health care systems of many western countries.  


Telehealth in China

China has seen incredible growth in the past decade in terms of technology, and it is no surprise that telehealth is starting to make its way into the country as well. In fact, it is actually more present than many people would think. For example, a report published by Chisult Insight found that "By the end of 2014, 50% of provincial level hospitals and 42% of primary hospitals have built up telemedicine centers in China respectively."

This is an interesting fact that highlights a potential trend: the use of telehealth in more rural locations. It is widely known in China that the level of care in smaller cities and rural locations is often barely adequate. While the government is slowly improving this, it will take time, and this is where telehealth comes in. A number of companies have launched telehealth initiatives that can help connect people with better care.

For example, Forbes reported on one company, Medistar, that has launched a platform that connects people in south-western China with western doctors. Doctors can consult with patients and give opinions, and patients can then use the app to find where to seek care.

Another example is the increasingly popular Ningbo Cloud Hospital which operates in Zhejiang province. Doctors at this hospital can conduct online consultations with patients via video call and then review medical records and even issue prescriptions if necessary. The prescription is uploaded to the cloud and then can be taken by the patient to the pharmacy to be filled.

The platform is also in hospitals, where patients can go to the local hospital to have a consultation with renowned doctors and specialists without having to actually travel to the city or country where they practice. According to an article on this in the China Daily, "A patient can go through the entire process from online appointment, video consultation and diagnosis, e-prescription, online payment to medicine delivery at home. They can also go to a nearby community clinic for a physical examination before talking to doctors at big hospitals on the Internet. Ningbo is just one of many locations which bet big on the promising smart hospital industry. Similarly, some hospitals in developed cities such as Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Wuhan introduced their own online services."


Benefits of telehealth

While telehealth may not feel as effective as seeing a doctor in person, there are a number of benefits it can offer to those in China.

The first being that if the scale of implementation increases we could see a decrease in overall crowding of hospitals, especially in larger and more well-known facilities. People can go to their local facility, consult with the doctor via video call, and then have local staff provide any necessary care or medicines.

Another benefit is that telehealth can provide those living in rural locations or smaller cities access to health care officials who can often provide a better quality of care than can be found locally. This subsequently helps to increase the overall quality of care in the country.

The third benefit we can see is that if leveraged efficiently, you could see a decrease in the overall cost of care. You no longer will have to travel to see a doctor, and doctors will be able to work more effectively, which can help to reduce costs. Beyond that, if the care is not physically offered where the doctor is located, there is less need to invest in costly healthcare technology. In theory, if operational costs are lower the cost of care should also decrease.


Does insurance cover it?  

Telehealth is still a new field of medicine and while it shows great promise in the country, insurers have been slow to embrace this, or at the very least acknowledge that telehealth is a legitimate form of health care. What this means is that not every insurer will cover telehealth-related care.

Those that do may have an attached limit that is separate from normal outpatient care limits while others may allow it in certain circumstances. If you are living or working in a remote area of China, we strongly recommend securing an international health insurance plan. There are insurance providers available who will cover telehealth care. Barring that, these plans offer worldwide coverage which makes going to larger cities, or even other countries for care more feasible. Contact us today to learn more about your options.   


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