AsianScientist (Dec. 28, 2018) – In 2010, Mr. Jerry Liao Jieyuan and his team created an online platform called Guahao.com (Mandarin for ‘to register’) for patients to make consultation appointments with their doctors. Five years later, the platform was rebranded as WeDoctor after it raised almost US$400 million in investment from the likes of Tencent, Goldman Sachs and Hillhouse Capital. WeDoctor also opened its first hospital in Zhejiang, a province in eastern China, that year.
An artificial intelligence guru, Liao brought machine learning to the field of medicine and connected over 2,700 hospitals, 220,000 leading doctors, 15,000 pharmacies and 27 million monthly active users on the WeDoctor platform. By expanding access to medical expertise and addressing bottlenecks in the Chinese healthcare system using technology, WeDoctor is giving the world a glimpse of what the future of medicine might look like.
Asian Scientist Magazine spoke with Liao to learn more about his motivations and plans for WeDoctor in the coming years.
1. What made you decide to set up WeDoctor in 2010?
Seeing a doctor in China is not easy. Every day hundreds of patients queue for hours to get an appointment or buy slots off scalpers at extra fees. Furthermore, hospitals in big cities like Beijing face a daily influx of patients from the outskirts of the metropolises, partly because medical care in those rural areas is inadequate, but more importantly because hospitals in big cities are perceived to be of higher standards and offer better services.
These patients, who are already in pain, travel many hours to get to a big city hospital and upon arrival have to fight for an appointment for a doctor. That is why I set up WeDoctor in 2010. The aim was to use the internet, big data and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to help alleviate the problem.
2. How has WeDoctor grown since its inception?
WeDoctor started out as an online booking platform to connect patients to doctors. But to align with our ambitions to transform healthcare in China, we decided to unclog all the bottlenecks in the healthcare industry. So as we progressed, we added more functions to the system such as online follow-up consultations, providing drug prescriptions and places to get these drugs; we also built a home device to provide a one-stop service for all health-related problems. What we have really done is to develop WeDoctor into the go-to brand in the healthcare industry.
This success is based on WeDoctor being hosted on a cloud platform. Having this cloud platform provides the much-needed connectivity between patients, hospitals and healthcare practitioners. For patients, it means all-time access to quality healthcare. For healthcare practitioners and hospitals, access to desensitized data means prominent medical issues within their regions can be identified and tackled quickly.
3. Can you tell us more about the WeDoctor home device?
The WeDoctor Family Device, called ‘WeDoctor Tong,’ connects the WeDoctor platform’s offline service base of 2,700 hospitals, 260,000 online doctors and 20,000 pharmacy outlets to the users [the family], thereby providing a one-stop medical and healthcare service.
The device has software and hardware configurations unique to medical services. It has excellent intelligent device data synchronization, intelligent decision-making and automatic warning capabilities for caretakers, doctors and patients—for example, it can send patients a reminder to register themselves for a routine medical check-up.
As a result, a consultation request can be fulfilled in as quickly as 30 seconds. The offline services that follow an online consultation—surgical hospitalization, medicine purchase or rehabilitation management—can then be arranged through the device, creating a one-stop solution.
4. How does WeDoctor handle data privacy?
WeDoctor requires certain information for a patient to book a doctor, such as patient characteristics, health history, medication consumption, health demand, geographic location and so on.
Over the past eight years, we have collected the data of 180 million users. While China has yet to establish laws to protect personal information, we are fully aware of the importance of user data privacy and have placed that as one of our top priorities. We have implemented a four-pronged system [to guard against the potential risk to user data]. The system comprises a technical system, security system, personnel organization and maintenance.
Most importantly, any information we possess has been obtained with the consent of the user. Any sharing of that data with medical professionals is also consented. We should also stress that we never sell any personal information to third parties. However, we do use desensitized data to support data mining for AI, learning and training.
5. The AI-enabled diagnosis systems for both Western and Chinese medicine are unique features of WeDoctor. Can you tell us more about them?
WeDoctor has developed two intelligent AI-powered medical treatment systems for Chinese and Western medicine: Huatuo AI Doctor and RealDoctor, respectively. Both systems utilize readily available medical information together with previous diagnoses and treatments of patients. The result is highly sensitive systems that give highly accurate diagnoses.
At present, RealDoctor’s sensitivity in some diseases has exceeded that of AI giant Google. For example, RealDoctor’s accuracy and sensitivity in cervical cancer screening surpasses clinicians; its specificity for most of the data sets on classification of type 2 diabetic retinopathy is almost 99 percent, with almost 95 percent sensitivity. RealDoctor is also being deployed in a partnership with Zhejiang University and used in the establishment of China’s first healthcare AI open platform, the Healthcare AI Research Centre.
Similarly, Huatuo AI Doctor integrates the experiences of renowned doctors and treatments into a set of smart traditional Chinese medicine AI diagnosis and treatment applications. At present, Huatuo AI Doctor has access to 400 Chinese medicine clinics in 11 cities in Zhejiang province, handling a total of more than 2.6 million assisted prescriptions, providing cloud-based solutions, including digital health records, prescriptions, examinations and healthcare knowledge. It has become the most widely used cloud-based Chinese medical ‘brain’ internationally.
These two systems can help doctors and patients adhere to accurate health management and chronic disease management programs, improving overall treatment efficiency.
6. How is technology transforming healthcare? Do you envision AI replacing doctors?
The application of AI into the medical arena is pervasive. Today it is easier and quicker to diagnose a medical problem with AI. For example, using image recognition to identify a certain type of melanoma.
While AI has emerged as a useful tool for doctors and help improve their efficiency and accuracy, WeDoctor believes that medical professionals are not replaceable. Most doctors have a better understanding of a patient’s illness after listening to the patient’s story. That is the human touch that AI is lacking.
7. Are there any plans for an IPO or worldwide expansion?
Listing is part of the strategic direction of the company, and we will be releasing updates when there is progress. In terms of being on a global stage, we have been gradually launching strategic collaborations with medical institutions, pharmaceuticals and manufacturers of medical devices overseas.
In August 2018, WeDoctor and a consortium of investors agreed to acquire a majority stake in Genea Limited, Australia’s leading provider of integrated advanced assisted reproductive technology services. Hopefully, this will help extend WeDoctor’s transnational reach to help connect Chinese users with premium overseas medical services.
Closer to home, WeDoctor has been reaching out to our Asian counterparts through Fullerton Health, a leading vertically integrated healthcare platform in the Asia Pacific region. To fully integrate online and offline healthcare services in the region, we are jointly developing a new technology-enabled Health Maintenance Organization platform for Asia. The strategic partnership, sealed in September 2018, will also give us access to Fullerton Health’s substantial patient base, facilitating development in Asia.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce.
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