AI Is Transforming China's Healthcare Industry

Healthcare Author: Mengyao Zhang Editor: Luke Sheehan Aug 23, 2020 08:23 AM (GMT+8)

As AI gets more advanced, it is injecting vitality into traditional industries, allowing participants to picture very different futures to what they envisioned before.      

Smart watch helps people do health management. Image credit: Alvaro Reyes/Unspalsh

► AI healthcare is an inevitable trend across the globe, especially in the emerging market.

► Chinese AI healthcare companies are getting more mature, forming the industry landscape.

Artificial intelligence, as a fundamental technology, can help power almost any industry. As one of the tier-one countries with the most AI hubs, China is experiencing a national digitalization across many sectors and across multiples disciplines. At the mid-stage of its digital reshaping, the healthcare industry is lit with a limelight that no market watcher can miss.

Generally, smart technology helps the healthcare industry grow faster on innovation, and helps it grow smarter in various healthcare services. So far, AI healthcare in China includes ten areas, including drug development, auxiliary diagnostics, auxiliary treatment, health management, rehabilitation, online consultations, health wearables, hospital management, precision medicines and biotechnology research.

An inevitable trend: Global and domestic

Undoubtedly, the concept of healthcare and AI is exciting to investors. The capital resources can never be too much for players in this area. On a global scale, the healthcare AI funding was up 14% on a QoQ-based CAGR. In China, the funding activities have calmed down to a healthy status since the peak time in 2018, with a total investment amount of CNY 7.9 billion, occurring in 66 deals.

Compared to the continuously dynamic global investment environment, China's capital market for healthcare AI seems to have cooled down since last year. The average investment amount per deal is CNY 61.4 million, CNY 181.2 million and CNY 147 million from 2017 to 2019. The first two quarters in 2020 saw 26 transactions completed at a total of CNY 1.8 billion, with an average deal amount of CNY 69 million.

There are 129 Chinese AI healthcare companies in 2020, excluding those in targeted genetic research. Among them, 55 firms are in medical imaging, representing 42.6% of the total AI healthcare players. Most of the AI medical applications are based in triple-A hospitals, but they show an accelerated expansion trend.

Exploiting various healthcare demand

Undoubtedly, AI technology can be leveraged in far more healthcare areas. Medical imaging is just a starter.

But how far can AI go down the healthcare path? To have a rough idea about the potential, we can have a general look at the fundamental technology. The AI in China can be dissected into six perspectives: computer vision, machine learning, natural language processing, data mining, speech conversion and speech interaction.

As the underpinning technology, each angle of AI technology mentioned can vitalize niche healthcare segments on a technical level. Medical imaging and new drug discovery are two heated applications integrated with high-end AI.

Besides, from a broader perspective, AI technology helps redistribute medical resources in an innovative way. On the one hand, it makes traditional medical facilities run smarter, faster and more effectively. The smart hospitals project has already been promoted in large-scale Chinese cities, following up on the great demand for electronic records, cloud records, data sharing, and online consultation.

On the other hand, cloud technology connects doctors from end to end, making the medical expertise and knowledge more equal across regions. It is a well-known fact that China has a very unbalanced distribution of medical resources – almost 80% of medical resources are aggregated in 20% of hospitals. In contrast, grassroots clinics and hospitals in remote and lower-tier cities significantly lack high-quality supplies. Medical imaging for real-time surgeries makes it so that patients from everywhere consult prestigious expert doctors.

Last but not least, one noteworthy fact is the fusion of multi-technologies in a stand-alone medical scenario. It implies that the medical demand for AI technology has been better understood and recognized. These medical demands are not a monolithic request but multi-faceted and technical-solution-demanding questions.

The landscape of five primary healthcare segments

Many AI healthcare companies have been trying out the market. The segment of medical imaging by far has grown to a heated red sea while other industries are experiencing the infant or booming stage. The AI technology has been used in these ten medical areas: drug development, auxiliary diagnostics, auxiliary treatment, health management, rehabilitation, online consultations, health wearables, hospital management, precision medicines and biotechnology research.

However, from an industry perspective, we pick out some example companies in five primary healthcare segments.

The AI healthcare is not a new concept anymore. As more companies in this field are eyeing the consumer market, the industry is starting to enter a mature phase. Meanwhile, some online healthcare companies – JD Health, Ping An Good Doctor and Ali Health – have been injecting AI technology into their consumer-oriented services.