China’s internet giants are determined to improve healthcare for the masses with AI, e-commerce, and even offline clinics.

China’s healthcare sector is projected to become a whopping $1 trillion industry by 2020, according to McKinsey & Co, yet most people still cannot get a basic doctor’s appointment without queuing for hours.

Understaffed and overcrowded hospitals, pharma corruption, and a healthcare ecosystem ill-equipped to deal with China’s 1.4 billion people are contributing to a crisis that insurance giant Ping An and major internet companies Alibaba and Tencent are racing to solve. Through a series of global partnerships, technological developments in medical diagnosis, and artificial intelligence (AI), these digital giants are striving to remap the failing traditional healthcare model to make it more accessible and efficient for China’s tech-savvy consumers—supported by the government, which hopes to achieve the goals set by its Healthy China 2030 initiative.

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Tencent Doctorwork clinic. Courtesy of Studio Adjective
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So far, much of the progress and research is happening behind the scenes, but a number of consumer-facing health tech efforts are already beginning to transform the doctor-patient relationship in day-to-day life.

Across 80 cities in China, AI is helping to improve access to over-the-counter medication, which is typically limited in the bricks-and-mortar arena—consumers won’t find a convenience store like Walmart or Walgreens stocking painkillers or even first-aid kits. One of the newest services from Ping An’s healthcare arm, Good Doctor, makes it as easy to order non-prescription medicine and personal care products online as it is to get a meal delivered. Users only need to complete a quick, AI-driven questionnaire on the Ping An Good Doctor app to determine their health needs, after which the products will be delivered to their home or office within just one hour.

If their diagnosis requires more than a quick fix, consumers may decide to turn to Tencent’s catch-all social media platform WeChat, which has been steadily building up a network of participating hospitals where users can book doctor’s appointments through their app to avoid long lines at the hospital. Following their health checkup, patients can also often conveniently access their medical report through WeChat.

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Tencent Doctorwork clinic. Courtesy of Studio Adjective

More recently, Tencent has moved into private offline care with its Doctorwork clinics, which optimize and redistribute resources using a sharing model for staff and equipment. Tencent Doctorwork practitioners are part-time, working full-time at nearby hospitals. Its Beijing location was designed by Hong Kong-based interior design agency Studio Adjective and mixes tech with warmth and wellness, replacing the sterile white walls of a typical hospital with natural wood and curved hallways. The design also features digital touchscreens outside each treatment room, which doctors can access to see each patient’s vital signs. Visitors use their Tencent Doctorwork app to assess their vitals at the reception desk and these are automatically uploaded onto the clinic’s system.

Due to a severe shortage of family medicine practitioners in Chinese hospitals, patients commonly go straight to a specialist and this can sometimes lead to delayed diagnoses and confusion. Tencent Doctorwork tries to make the process more efficient with an AI-powered questionnaire on a touchscreen near the reception desk that helps visitors determine which specialist to visit at the clinic, from traditional Chinese medicine to gynecology and radiology. Members of the clinic also have access to 24-7 remote and in-home care.

Alibaba’s AliHealth, which became China’s largest e-commerce pharmaceutical vendor in China last year, recently partnered with science and technology company Merck to bring safety and security to the online drug sector. Hoping to stamp out the production and distribution of fake medications, the companies are collaborating to develop drug-tracking systems, while also allowing patients to look up dosage and get reminders to take their medication through the Alipay and Taobao apps.

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Alibaba's AliHealth app
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Following the establishment of the partnership, CEO of AliHealth Leo Shen outlines the roadmap for the future of healthcare in China: “China is experiencing a profound internet transformation, where the internet will penetrate every stage of industrial production, business operations, and people’s daily lives. Given the uniqueness and importance of the healthcare industry, the integration of internet and traditional medical and healthcare industries also needs to be driven by industry leaders.”

While most developments are just getting under way, China’s big health tech companies are already looking to other markets in need. Ping An Good Doctor recently announced a partnership with Southeast Asia’s Grab, the ride-sharing company that replaced Uber in the region, while Tencent-backed WeDoctoralso expects to take its healthcare platform overseas.

For more on how healthcare is evolving in Asia, see our “The Well Economy: APAC Edition” report.