Apps could usher in mobile health revolution

By Mi Xingang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 4, 2013
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China's market for medical and health related mobile applications is soaring with more than 2,000 such apps currently available on devices from smartphones to tablets. Chinese entrepreneurs are exploring the market for development opportunities and many are enthusiastic about mid and long-term potential.

"Through apps, all body indicators can be monitored and signals will be sent if anything abnormal starts to happen," said Zhang Yi, CEO of iiMedia Research Group, a data mining and integrated marketing agency specializing in mobile Internet.

According to iiMedia Research's the 2012-2013 annual report on China's mobile medical market, the market scale has reached 1.86 billion yuan ($302.1 million), and it is expected to reach 12.5 billion yuan within five years.

Omnipresent mobile "doctors", such as Spring Rain Palm Doctor, 5U family doctor, Palm Drug Store and Pocket Physical Examination, have become popular downloads in China's app stores. Each has its different uses: 5U family doctor help users find family doctors and sign contracts with them. Palm Drug Store mainly provides auto diagnosis services and Pocket Physical Examination can be used to measure pulse rate, test hearing and even take psychological evaluations.

Spring Rain Palm Doctor was formally launched by Zhang Rui in 2011 and covered pediatric, gynecology and obstetrics. The app's current 3.0 version covers every department a general hospital has, including the recently added H7N9 department.

Zhang commented that the application has the ability to link users to more than 5,000 doctors in China's leading hospitals. Users can consult doctors by paying a nominal fee of up to 25 yuan and generally receive a professional consultation within minutes. According to Zhang, some of the doctors involved could earn more than 10,000 yuan each month through the platform, adding that 8 million users have been registered and nearly 10,000 health queries are resolved every day.

Even health care professionals are using the app. Wang Qi, a 54-year-old obstetrician at Beijing Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital uses Spring Rain Palm Doctor to investigate everyday queries about pediatrics to help her granddaughter, such as problems with milk regurgitation, fretting and constipation.

Despite the impressive download figures for mobile health care apps, entrepreneurs and investors are more concerned with the development of a mature business model. Many have commented that the relatively mature models in the U.S. are not suitable for the Chinese market, where public hospitals play the leading role and commercial medical insurance is generally an underdeveloped industry, unlike in the U.S.

It is generally acknowledged that medicine enterprises are the most likely to lead the Chinese market. Palm Drug Store, 5U family doctor and Spring Rain Palm Doctor have all started or plan to become intermediaries for the sale of medicines. Summarizing the current situation, Zhang Rui commented: "We have sporadic business opportunities, but no mature business model is available for us."

As an emerging industry, the mobile health app industry constantly faces accusations that it does not provide a genuinely professional and trustworthy service. According to scientific NGOs in China, although some products are backed by professional advice and service, the contents of most apps are not backed by hard science. In addition, the boundary between consulting and diagnosis is also blurred and many scholars have warned that once online diagnoses and prescriptions enter the marketplace, they should swiftly be followed by supervision and regulation. Making a further distinction, Lu Jie, the chief doctor at Spring Rain Palm Doctor, commented that most mobile health apps in China should be categorized as health products rather than medical ones.

Zhang Yi estimates that China's three main operators, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, will be the major players and beneficiaries of the online medical service market in China over the next five years. Zhang believes that state-owned enterprises must become involved in order to improve the use of new technologies to improve the spread of information and communication in China's medical system, adding that entrepreneurs currently just enhance product quality and fulfill users' experiences.

Sharing his vision for the future, Zhang said that in future apps could be connected with the nearest hospital and even arrange for an ambulance to be called, even before a situation becomes critical. Statistics, including medical records, cardiographs and blood pressure figures are already in patients' case data and if necessary, those data could be sent to a renowned doctor on the other side of the world, according to Zhang. "It is not science fiction; it is a mobile health revolution which is happening right now."

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