Free healthcare programs are coming to rural China. Charity? No, AI-training
On a drizzly Saturday morning in rural Henan, a province in northern China, Mr Liu, 68, is in high spirits. The ruddy-skinned farmer has come to his village clinic for his second health examination of the year; he’s had his blood pressure checked, had an ECG, completed a urine test and given a blood sample.
“[With these check-ups] I know more about my health, and I feel more secure,” he says ”It’s very good.” Despite suffering from high blood pressure and chronic leg pain, he has never been to the bigger town hospital, which is a 30 minute drive away and at which he would have to pay a fee. The village check-ups, which started last year, are free.
What Mr Liu doesn’t know is that the mobile clinic that has driven up to his village this morning is provided by WeDoctor, a private healthcare company that is part of Tencent, the Chinese technology conglomerate. Mr Liu has never heard of WeDoctor, but WeDoctor knows a lot about him.
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In April 2017, the company signed a co-operation agreement with the local government to provide medical services, health insurance, pharmaceuticals and healthcare education in the city, starting with a pilot in Jia County, which includes Mr Liu’s village. None of the equipment or staff that Mr Liu has interacted with mentioned WeDoctor, but all the data collected, which is linked to personal identification numbers, is being uploaded straight to the WeDoctor cloud.
This data is used to feed WeDoctor’s artificial intelligence products, including the “auxiliary treatment system for general practice” that village doctors in Jia County can now use. Doctors simply have to input a patient’s symptoms and the system provides them with suggested diagnoses and treatments, calculated from a database of over 5,000 symptoms and 2,000 diseases. WeDoctor claims that the system has an accuracy rate of 90 per cent.
Dr Zhang Qiaofen, in nearby Ren Zhuang village, says the system it has made her life easier. “Since WeDoctor came to my clinic, I feel more comfortable and have more confidence,” she says. “I’m thankful to the device for helping me make decisions.” The system is part of a dual-pronged effort to connect rural doctors with greater levels of expertise, and to integrate patient data. China’s laws offers few protections on personal data, which has allowed AI to advance rapidly, and the government to build an even more comprehensive picture of each of its citizens.
“As per local requirements,” WeDoctor says in a report, “the data of WeDoctor is now integrated into the regional government platform.” At the local headquarters, a giant screen shows the breakdown of patient data in Jia County: village, gender, age, ailment and whether or not a person has registered with a village health check are all detailed. “The government doesn’t have access to personalised [patient] data,” a WeDoctor spokesperson says. “Just their phone number [which is linked to a personal identification number], address and details of their sickness.” A second spokesperson says that it is obligatory for villagers to attend these checks, whether or not they are unwell.
The WeDoctor pilot is one of many similar initiatives in China. Over 130 companies are working on applying AI in China’s healthcare sector, as part of the government’s “Made in China 2025” plan.
According to PereDoc, a Beijing-based startup that has developed software that can parse CT scans and identify lung nodules, “[The volume of] China’s medical data almost doubles every two years”, while “the [annual] growth rate of radiologists in China is only four per cent’.” China has a serious shortage of doctors: there are only 1.5 doctors per 1,000 people (compared to 2.8 in the UK). As life expectancy increases, so do chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure, but the already strained medical system is struggling to keep up.
It is not just rural areas that are benefitting from and having their data mined by AI companies. At Beijing Shijitan Hospital, one of the largest cancer hospitals in the country, doctors have been using PereDoc software since May. Dr Xue Xinying, a chest specialist, says that the technology is “amazing”. “It now only takes five seconds to process a scan, rather than ten to 20 minutes.”
The AI flags potential nodules in red, and a doctor checks for false positives. The company claims that the accuracy rate is 94.9 per cent for nodules under 5mm, and 99.7 per cent for larger ones, compared to a human accuracy rate that ranges from 77.6 percent to 95.3 per cent. As with WeDoctor, the patient data provides further fuel for the AI software, although the data is stored by the hospital rather than by PereDoc.
The Chinese government’s grip on private companies gives it free rein over what information it collects about its citizens, and how it is used. If China does pull ahead in the global AI race, it will also be thanks to people like Mr Liu.
5 Chinese startups innovating in healthcare technology
- Founded in 2010, WeDoctor was originally an app to help people book hospital appointments. This later expanded into a more comprehensive, AI-driven project. It is part of the technology giant Tencent, China’s second-most valuable company.
- A Beijing startup that launched in 2017 with a trial at the People’s Liberation Army General Hospital, one of the best hospitals in the country. PereDoc now provides imaging software to over 200 hospitals around the country, focusing on lung cancer detection.
- A US-based app funded by Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing. The app connects cancer sufferers with their nearest treatment centres, and offers remote consultations and treatment plans.
- Ping An Good Doctor
- Unstaffed AI clinics, the size of telephone booths, that collect data through health and voice interactions. The AI software can suggest a treatment plan and a list of medication that can be bought from in-clinic vending machines. The first clinic was unveiled in November 2018 in Shanghai.
- The healthcare subsidiary of the e-commerce giant, Alibaba, it Alihealth has partnered with three major hospitals to launch China’s first AI medical laboratory, which includes a “smart diagnostics” system able to remotely assist doctors in clinical decisions.
Date: April 17, 2019