A man consults a doctor via an internet telemedicine platform at a drugstore in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, in May.
The emergence of e-medical platforms enables patients in China to access high-end services from across the globe. Wang Xiaodong reports.
For the past eight years, An Jianhua, a 57-year-old from Hunan province, has been troubled by a mysterious, rare ailment: When summer comes, she often sweats on the right side of her body, while the left side remains dry, causing embarrassment and distress.
"Summer has become a nightmare for me," she said. "I have to try to stay in an air-conditioned room whenever possible to prevent my left side from becoming too hot because of the lack of sweating, which could result in heat stroke. Whenever I go out, I always take a handkerchief with me to wipe away the sweat on my right side."
Over the years, An consulted doctors in a range of specialties, including general medicine, gynecology, endocrinology and psychology, but none could provide a clear diagnosis.
When she had almost given up hope of finding help, a smartphone app called Weiyi, which provides online diagnoses, helped to identify the right doctor for An's complaint.
After accessing the app, in early August An's son selected the "precise appointment" function and submitted descriptions of his mother's ailment. Within a few minutes, the system suggested Cao Xuebing, a physician at the Wuhan Union Hospital, in the capital of Hubei province, who has cured similar problems before.
An booked an appointment with Cao, and the next day she consulted him via the app's video link.
"Dr Cao said it's possible that the condition is caused by problems with my parasympathetic nervous system," she said.
On Aug 23, An traveled to Wuhan and had a one-on-one meeting with Cao, who prescribed medication.
"I did not expect the app would help me to find the right doctor so easily," she said. "Dr Cao said he will keep in touch with me via the app while I continue the medication."
More than 20,000 patients across China now use the online "precise appointment" service provided by the We Doctor Group, a digital healthcare service provider in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, said Ye Qiujie, the company's marketing director.
"The service is intended to match patients with the right doctors," she said. "Our online medical groups will find experts within five minutes of receiving the information provided by the patient, such as medical records and a description of the ailment."
The We Doctors' e-health platform uses internet technology to provide services such as registration, online consultations and diagnosis, and distribution of medication. It is linked to more than 1,900 major hospitals nationwide, and has 110 million registered users and 200,000 registered doctors, according to Ye.
Liu Yuanli, dean of the School of Public Health at Beijing Union Medical College, said online services will provide benefits for millions of patients: "The integration of internet technology with medical care can realize automatic and intelligent collection, storage, exchange and sharing of information regarding diagnosis and treatment. It will help residents gain better access to high-quality medical care services."
Innovations in medical care through internet technology have resulted in tangible benefits to patients, such as mobile-based diagnosis, he said. "It will benefit those living in sparsely populated areas in particular, so they can also gain access to high-quality healthcare."
Song Li, an official at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said rural residents will benefit the most: "The integration of medical care with the internet will encourage people in China's western areas, which are less developed and have fewer medical resources, to seek medical services more actively."
According to a guideline released by the central government last year, internet technology should be better adopted in sectors such as healthcare, education and transport to promote optimized distribution of services and provide the public with access to more-diverse, higher-quality services.
By the end of last year, the number of users of online medical care services in China was 152 million, accounting for 22.1 percent of the country's netizens, according to a report released in January by the China Internet Network Information Center. The report noted that the most commonly used services included access to information about medical and healthcare services, appointments and online consultations.
Meanwhile, a report released by the Boston Consulting Group said the application of internet technology will result in China's digital healthcare market expanding at "exponential rates" in the next few years.
"New digital tools and technologies will bring about epoch-making changes to China's medical care industry," said Magen Xia, the lead author of the report. "Every link in the whole medical care industry chain will be affected, including diagnostic methods."
China will spend almost 700 billion yuan (5 billion) on digital medical services by 2020, compared with 20 billion yuan in 2014, the report said.
The integration of the internet and healthcare is still at the primary stage in China, according to Zhao Jie, chief of digital medical care at the Chinese Health Information Association.
"There are numerous internet-based medical care platforms, but almost all of them are engaged in the marginal areas of medical care, and the services they provide are limited to registration and online advice about non-serious illnesses," he said.
Ni Rong, an official at the Zhejiang Provincial Health and Family Planning Commission, said a lack of connectivity between hospitals poses a major challenge to the development of digital healthcare.
"Different hospitals' databases are not shared, and every hospital is trying to establish its own online platform," he said. "It's a waste of resources."
For Zhao, the lack of information exchange and sharing is also a major problem because it affects the ability of e-healthcare platforms to treat patients. "The solution is to establish a unified platform for sharing information, so hospitals, patients and doctors can be connected and data can be shared," he said.
Many other obstacles still exist, according to Xia, from Boston Consulting.
"Regulatory policies on remote diagnosis and treatment, the online sale of prescription drugs and reimbursement of patients who seek online services are still not clearly defined," she said.
Some experts have warned that the provision of services through third-party platforms may result in problems, such as inadequate or incorrect diagnoses, and responsibility may not be clear if accidents occur. Also, a guideline published by the National Health and Family Planning Commission in 2014 restricts non-hospital platforms from directly providing remote medical care services.
Liu, from the Beijing Union Medical College, said that with the emergence of online medical care, the government should strengthen supervision to eliminate risks.
"With the emergence of new things, opportunists also come," he said. "Investors are pouring money into the sector, but we should remain cautious about the possible risks that may bring."
Li Bo from Wuhan contributed to the story.