Firms launch AI clinic alliance to meet growing demand

Updated 2017-11-17 10:32:17 Global Times

High-tech medical diagnosis set to meet growing demand

Several Chinese tech startups and hospitals formed the first alliance for artificial intelligence (AI) application in healthcare on Wednesday, with the aim of meeting growing demand for medical services in the country.

Zhejiang University, along with several hospitals across the country and online medical service provider We Doctor Group, jointly launched the alliance on Wednesday in Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang and set up special funds for AI-related clinical and medical projects.

"The move aims to push forward AI adoption in the healthcare sector in China, and enhance the connection among hospitals, research institutions and investors," Wu Jian, a professor specializing in AI medical services at Zhejiang University, told the Global Times on Thursday.

AI is changing the landscape of medical services in China, Wu noted. "For example, machine learning algorithms can be used in improving the accuracy of medical imaging and diagnostic procedures."

With the help of breakthroughs in some major areas including image recognition, deep learning and neural networks, AI has become vital disruptive technology for the healthcare sector. In 2016, the value of AI-related healthcare deals soared 31 percent year-on-year to 4 million across the globe, according to industry consultancy CB Insights.

There were also a record amount of healthcare AI deals in the second quarter of 2017, mainly boosted by four firms in India and three in China funded by venture capital firms such as Sequoia Capital China and Northwest Venture Partners.

AI adoption will help accelerate reform and innovation in medical services in China, and tackle issues such as the shortage of nursing, particularly in family healthcare. In China, primary-care doctors account for only about 7 percent of the total number of doctors, much lower than the percentage in advanced economies where the proportion is 30 percent to 50 percent, so smart healthcare products can play the role of filling this gap, We Doctor said in a document sent to the Global Times.

The company has set up a cloud base for healthcare documents, which can be connected with smart wearable devices to monitor blood pressure, heart rate and sleep patterns.

Major breakthroughs

Abundant data and high-speed computing capacity have provided a platform for AI technologies to be used in different scenarios.

Also, the increasing need for healthcare services in China generates a large amount of data, which can be used for training purposes in labs. And the main use in China is in screening and diagnosis.

Several machine learning-powered diagnosis models developed by research teams in the AI lab at Zhejiang University have been rapidly catching up with overseas tech giants like Google. For instance, the specificity and sensitivity metrics for detecting diabetic retinopathy have reached 99 percent and 95 percent, respectively, which has surpassed Google AI diagnosis, according to the document.

Industrial standard needed

Despite the rapid growth of smart medical services, the Chinese authorities have not yet come up with an industrial standard for the sector, which may raise concerns over administrative supervision in the near future, experts noted. "If two research teams both claim they have reached a very high accuracy rate in diagnosing certain diseases, how to distinguish one from another remains uncertain if there is not a unified industrial standard," Wu said.

Although the National Health and Family Planning Commission handed out a draft for feedback on Internet clinical services and management earlier this year, there have been no more updates on it, said an industry insider, who preferred not to be named.

Compared to China, the U.S., which is the leader in the AI sector, holds a more cautious attitude as its regulators oversee AI application, he said.

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