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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Turning to Health Apps in Rural China

Hiroki Yajima

Feb. 16, 2016

Finding a doctor or a well-equipped hospital can often be a difficult task in rural parts of China. But a new type of online business aims to change that.

More and more people across the country are downloading health-related smartphone apps.

First they sign up with a medical consultation service. Then all they have to do is tap in their symptoms, and in just a few moments they can get a diagnosis.

The company that came up with one of these services is called Chunyu, and it’s based in a Beijing information-technology hub.

The company has around 40,000 registered doctors from all over the country on its books. That way, staff can ensure every one of their 92 million customers gets help as soon as possible.

Officials at the firm say, on average, it takes just 3 minutes to get a final diagnosis.

"We've been producing some really good results. Pregnant women and children always need reliable treatment,” says Zeng Baiyi, the CTO of Chunyu. “The number of people who use our service is steadily increasing as our reputation grows."

In major Chinese cities, it's usually no problem accessing health services. But people in rural areas often have to travel vast distances and wait in long lines for hospital treatment. Many are fed up, and they're embracing this new way of doing things.

More than 110 million people have signed up with a firm in Zhejiang Province that combines a traditional bricks-and-mortar approach with the power of the Internet.

A doctor is stationed at each branch to offer a diagnosis, and then, if necessary, to go online with the patient to consult a specialist.

"This is a small town, but now we have access to big hospitals through the Internet,” one patient says. “It's a great service that's really convenient for people like us."

"I think the Internet is helping to correct a big disparity,” says Liao Jieyun, CEO of We Doctor, an online medical service provider. “We're keen to support doctors in rural areas by passing on the knowledge of their counterparts in other places."

NHK World’s Hiroki Yajima joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio from Beijing.

Shibuya: So Hiroki, what's behind the disparities in health services between urban and rural areas?

Yajima: The biggest problem is the wealth gap that's seen everywhere around the country. Because of this gap, few medical practitioners are willing to relocate and work in the countryside. To overcome this, the Chinese government has introduced a policy known as "Internet Plus." It hopes it will lead to the development of the manufacturing and service industries, including the health sector.

The growth of online health services was sparked by an initiative that allows doctors to work in multiple hospitals in certain regions. The project began in 2009 with the goal of helping more people in rural areas receive treatment. In 2014, the project was expanded so that people in remote areas could also receive diagnoses. The online health business grew quickly after that.

Beppu: But on the other hand, with the growth of this online service, what kind of problems are happening in terms of the systems involved?

Yajima: The business has grown without any proper legislation in place. This means there is no safety net in place for patients who are misdiagnosed or suffer medical malpractice. There's also no guarantee that the doctors will fulfill their tasks properly. Some doctors have reportedly told patients to just visit their hospitals. Others have simply told patients to read the advice the doctor has posted online for other patients. When it comes to who is responsible for misdiagnoses, the operator of the online service we heard from in the earlier report says that remains a grey area.

“Legal restrictions and policies related to online medical services are not yet fully in place. This is something that has to be dealt with urgently. I want the government to start screening and overseeing the doctors providing online services and prescribing medication. Medical insurance also needs to be introduced."

Liao Jieyun / CEO of We Doctor

Some experts are expressing caution over the online medical services. They say there should be a supplementary approach to face-to-face diagnoses. People involved are being pressed to ensure that new social problems don't appear, amid efforts to correct regional gaps in health care services and spread the growth of online businesses.