Here’s how AI is changing China’s healthcare system

04/04/2018

Beijing’s plan for a US$150 billion AI sector by 2030 isn’t just boosting e-commerce – it’s revolutionizing healthcare

 

Beijing has been vocal about its desire to beat out western nations in AI research – it’s placed its bet with a plan to create a US$150 billion artificial intelligence sector by 2030. In e-commerce, we’ve already seen the effects of this initiative through smart cities that afford faster delivery times and improved logistics, smarter platforms, and face recognition that allows users to purchase cars with their mobile device.

But it’s not just the commercial market that AI is pushing forward. The healthcare sector is also benefitting from China’s AI innovation. Pharmacists on Alibaba Health chat with users to prescribe proper medications, Yitu Technolgy is finding ways to let doctors make more accurate diagnoses, and hospitals across the country are leveraging AI to treat patients better and faster.

 

AI relieves doctors of patient burden – in 2015 there were 1.5 physicians for every 1,000 people

 

The developments couldn’t come fast enough – China needs more efficient healthcare of improved quality. The World Health Organisation estimated that in 2015 there were only 1.5 physicians for every 1,000 people in China, compared with 2.5 in the US and 2.8 in Britain. Furthermore, the education of doctors outside of city centers is lacking compared to their urban counterparts leading to a disparity in quality of care. Finally, geographic constraints and a large population have given rise to angry patients. One in five doctors in China had been assaulted by a patient at least once and four in five had been verbally abused, according to a 2016 survey by Yimi Research. The survey said distrust and a lack of communication were the primary triggers for conflict.

While developing a US$150 billion AI industry is a lofty goal, if there’s a country that can achieve it, it’s China. China benefits from a huge population, fewer restrictions to accessing citizens’ data compared to counterparts, and plenty of skilled professionals to build and develop cutting-edge AI models. IDC predicted that China’s market for AI health-care services will reach 5.9 billion yuan ($930 million) in 2022. According to the MIT Technology Review, Alibaba and Tencent both have research units developing diagnostic tools for the healthcare sector.

Peredoc is one AI startup that’s helping relieve China’s doctor shortage. Using data from over 180 hospitals, Peredoc software can read x-rays and CT scans. A Beijing hospital will start feeding all of its lung scans to the software next month in a hospital that sees 10,000 patients per day.

 

China’s first AI hospital goes live in Guangdong

 

Further South, China’s first intelligent hospital is online. According to a statement released by the Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital, as of April 2nd, the hospital will integrate AI into all aspects of the patient process. It uses a WeChat app that lets patients receive a probable diagnosis from a medical professional of the hospital within three minutes. Then, patients can register for an appointment through the app and pay in advance. Payments can be made with Alipay, WeChat Pay, and cash. The hospital created its diagnostic neural network using a database of medical records from 2005-2017.

Another startup called iFlytek developed the first robot to pass China’s national medical licensing exam. The robot scored 456 points, 96 points higher than the required marks, making it the first AI-powered pupil to pass such a test worldwide. Working in conjunction with researchers at Tsinghua University, iFlytek’s AI doctor Xiaoyi, which means “little doctor”, officially launched in March 2018.

 

Western companies still domniate AI creating barrier to adoption

 

As of December 2017, IBM’s Watson was rolled out in 50 hospitals across China with another 300 medical institutions also planning to utilize the technology. Watson was born in an IBM lab in the U.S. and trained at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Speaking to the SCMP, Zhao Changlin, an oncologist at a hospital in Guangzhou said, “Watson has been really helpful. “When you cannot make up your mind about which treatment plan to choose, Watson can provide suggestions backed by data and case studies, enabling doctors to make an informed decision.”

Although tech companies and Beijing are pouring money into AI research, some barriers remain. AI technology is still dominated by Western companies and it’s unclear how easy it will be to integrate AI like Watson with Chinese databases of knowledge. As in the case of Guangdong Second Provincial General Hospital, researchers can develop AI using existing medical databases as a workaround. Additionally, AI fails to compete with humans in areas of empathy and ethics.

It’s without a doubt that AI will go a long way in relieving the burden of Chinese doctors overburdened with patients. As China works to integrate AI into its medical institutions, human doctors will be able to focus on the emotional intelligence aspects of medical care thanks to help from intelligent assistants.

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