We live in the century of massive digitization. Every business that was traditionally done in an offline manner is now being moved to the internet and being transformed to a model that caters to the behavior patterns of online users. This is also true when it comes to the healthcare service industry, which in the past decades has been predominantly occupied and safeguarded by qualified medical institutions where patients visit and get treatment from medical professionals in person. Although many people believe that outbreak of COVID-19 might vastly reshape the landscape of healthcare sector,‘going digital’ was already an emerging trend as many startups have been trying to find innovative digital solutions that resolves the problems of information barrier, efficiency challenge, and resource allocation across the healthcare value chain.
COVID-19 certainly accelerated this process. In China, to reduce the possibilities of cross-infection between COVID-19 patients and others, some hospitals have shut down outpatient services, leaving many chronic disease patients to seek help from online healthcare platforms such as AliHealth and Ping An Good Doctor. Since January, total visits on Ping An Good Doctor reached 1.1 billion, with 10x registered users and 9x new online consultations.
Discussions on future opportunities for digital healthcare have also gained wide attention. Will this headline trend be sustained in the post COVID-19 period? What are viable business models? Are the market and regulators ready to embrace innovations when things go back to normal? Do developing countries with limited medical resources have the potential leverage digital healthcare to leapfrog and go beyond the traditional models of public and private healthcare? In search for answers to these questions, we would like to share our observations and thoughts on what happened in the healthcare industry in China over the past few years, and hope this could shed some lights on the ways forward for startups and investors in other emerging markets.
This blog is part of the ‘Future Insight Series’ which features case studies of Internet tech-enabled startups in China to encourage discussions on business models that disrupt traditional economies and enable changes in emerging markets. At Future Hub, we are fully dedicated to innovations across the African continent by leveraging our knowledge and connections in China’s tech ecosystem. We partner with, incubate, invest in, and support visionary local entrepreneurs to build a bright future for Africa.
Disclaimer: This author of this blog article makes best effort to provide information and analysis based on publicly available data and information, but not liable for any direct, indirect or consequential losses, loss of profits, damages, costs or expenses arising out of the use of information contained in this blog. This article only reflects the author’s observations and opinions, and does not constitute any investment recommendation.
Digital Healthcare Industry in China
Before starting to talk about the drivers and bottlenecks of digital healthcare in China, it is worth pointing out that, healthcare service is to a large extent different from other service industries in general, given the social and political importance of public health and safety. This sector is heavily regulated. It also has some structural characteristics that are not commonly seen in those digital service industries including e-commerce, online travel agencies etc.
A few examples are:
However, there are some changing aspects in this industry despite these structural constraints. As SRI International defined in 2010, aside from the traditional, sickness-oriented and passive search for healthcare service, there is a growing desire to proactively seek for wellness management. Such demand is more elastic, and some HealthTech companies are already tapping into this juicier segment with AI-backed and big data solutions for smart health management.
The rise of the ‘new’ and ‘additional’demand for better and innovative healthcare services reflects the fundamental market conditions in China. Since 2008, healthcare expenditure per capita has been soaring at 14% to 15% CAGR. This results mainly from the overall economic development, as the share of healthcare expenses as a percent of GDP still remains between 4% and 5% - only that people, especially a rapidly growing middle class have more dispensable income to be allocated to quality healthcare.
（Data source: World Bank, Frost & Sullivan）
On the other hand, the evolving demographic structure also puts more pressure on the existing healthcare system. With more aging population, chronic disease cases generate growing demand for high-frequency interactions with medical professionals, thus bringing more traffic to healthcare services.
Meanwhile, in the same period, mobile internet technologies and innovations have experienced an exponential growth, with almost 95% of the 731 million internet browsers being mobile internet users.
A fast-developing and aging economy with a solid mobile internet user group sets the backdrop for a growing digital healthcare service market in China.
Nevertheless, some deep-rooted bottlenecks of traditional healthcare industry continue to prevent itself from responding to these emerging needs.
Insufficient and over-concentrated medical resources
It is natural for any human being to find the best medical solution whenever he or she can. In China, the ‘best’doctors, as perceived by the public, work in Class III hospital. As of 2016, there were only 2,232 Class III hospitals across the country (mostly concentrated in urban areas of mega cities), which take in almost half of annual consultations and diagnosis. Poor resource management when supply is very limited leads to poor user experience:lack of efficiency and transparency in information, hard to make appointment, long-distance travel, long waiting time, short consultation time, etc. On average, patients wait for 3 hours only to get to talk with the doctor for eight minutes.
(Data Source: Ping’An Good Doctor IPO Prospectus)
Incompatible payment system with insurance schemes
Moreover, even though some innovators attempted to remove the frictions in the system and better serve the consumers, paying for the services/solutions provided becomes troublesome again. 97% of people in China are covered by three major public health insurance schemes: urban employee basic medical insurance, urban resident basic medical insurance, and new rural cooperative medical scheme. Without getting the approval from authorities or partnership with private insurance companies, non-hospital healthcare service facilitators can only resort to out-of-pocket payment from the patient, which does at all not help them get more advantageous over the traditional offline model.
As mentioned earlier, healthcare service sectors used to be heavily regulated in light of public interests. However, regulators have started to see the benefits of digital solutions and attempted to create favorable policy environments for innovators. In fact, many of the successful cases emerged from that period.
Between 2014 and 2015, provinces such as Guizhou launched piloting phase for ‘Internet/Online hospital’and encouraged explorations of business models that complement the traditional offline medical care model. In spite of tightened regulations in 2016 and 2017, more province-level governments are welcoming the participation of non-hospital service platforms in processes of online consultation, online pharmaceutical stores, online prescription, referrals, and even partial payment through insurance schemes in wake of such need after COVID-19 hits the society. But any entity that is involved in diagnostic and prescriptive services has to be either a licensed hospital itself or to partner with one such offline hospital.
Overview of existing digital solutions
Positive signals from regulatory authorities have incentivized startups to get involved in and offer their unique value propositions improved efficiency in communicating information and mobilizing tangible and intangible medical resources. Apart from hospital-centric SaaS providers, four major models have emerged in patient-facing contexts.
Ping’An Good Doctor: Case in Point
What makes Ping’An Good Doctor an interesting case worth looking at is that, as the first healthcare startup that launched IPO in Hong Kong, it covers almost all models discussed above. Moreover, it originated from one of the leading private healthcare companies in China, Ping An Group, which offered support to grow the business in various ways. Ping’An Good Doctor was awarded the "Listed Enterprise of the Year 2019" for its brilliant performance. According to its annual report, as of December 2019, registered users on Ping’An reached 315 million, winning itself a leading position in the market. Monthly active users (MAU) are 66.9 million, however, and of whom only 3 million are fee-paying users, indicating that conversion rate is still relatively low at 4% - although slightly improved from 3.6% in 2018.
Ping’An Good Doctor has four main lines of businesses:
（1）Online consultation and diagnosis
With three licenses for internet hospitals granted in Qinghai province, Yinchuan and Hefei city, Ping’An has developed an in-house team comprised of 1,409 licensed doctors to provide 24/7 online consultation, referral, appointment-making and prescription services to mobile users. For referrals to physical medical services, Ping An is working together with more than 3,000 hospitals across the country to facilitate offline interactions. It also has partnered with over 5,000 external medical professionals from Class III hospitals who offer consultation services (not on-demand) to users who prefer to consult with specialists. In addition, AI chatbots are deployed to assist user in building up their health profile throughout the conversation. The service is offered free of charge for the first 15 minutes of consultation. To see a designated specialist or follow up the conversation, users have to pay.
(PingAn App User interface)
Individuals can either ‘walk in’ to chat with medical professionals, send pictures on physical symptoms, or to choose an annual subscription plan, which is a new feature launched in 2018, Private Doctor, where users get assigned to one dedicated doctor for online consultation and diagnosis throughout the year. From a profitability viewpoint, between 2018 and 2019, the topline has boosted by 109%, which can be attributed to the introduction of subscription model for corporates. As disclosed by Huajin Securities, number of consultations and fee-paying conversion rate of corporate employees are 2.7x higher and 2.3x higher respectively than normal individuals, which indicates the stronger ability and willingness to pay in the corporate consumer segment.
Many other startups such as ChunYu, HaoDaifu, WeDoctor offer similar services in online consultation, diagnosis and prescription, but have not yet to achieve the scale and growth as Ping An Good Doctor. One possible answer is Ping An’s strong and stable in-house medical professional team that is available on demand, whereas competitors relying on part-time doctors with day job in hospital and cannot respond on real-time basis, which does not necessarily solve the ‘efficiency’ problem for end-users.
Health Mall refers to the sales of OTC medical products and wellness products either via direct sales or via the marketplace open to third-party vendors (which Ping An charges a commision on). In July 2018, Ping’An obtained Pharmaceutical Trade License (Wholesale), and it enabled Ping An to further develop its own online-to-offline (O2O) pharmaceutical wholesale network. In addition to expand partnerships with offline pharmacies to deliver to user doors, one of its recent strategies is to convert offline OTC drug buyers to online, by investing in OTC on-the-go kiosks.
(3) Consumer Healthcare and (4) Health Management and Wellness
These two segments respond to what is described as ‘proactive’healthcare demand earlier above. Health check-ups, genetic testing, cosmestic care are typical examples of consumer healthcare, which focuses on improving health well-being instead of direcly addressing disease or adverse health conditions for middle-class families with elderly people. Also, health management and planning tools are gaining tractions among young people.
(User interface: consumer healthcare and wellness)
Overall, as of 2019, Ping An Good Doctor has not yet materialized profitability. Across four business lines, health mall continues to be the biggest contributor to total revenue, while health management and wellness has the highest gross margin given its light-asset nature. Online consultation and diagnosis has seen a bounce-back in gross margin improvement, since corporate subscription model was introduced in 2018. However, in the short to medium term, this business line will likely to remain unprofitable – the expansion of in-house doctor team will drive up costs, while the pricing has a ceiling set by regulators, eating up the margin that is already very thin.
(Revenue breakdown and Gross Margin by business line.
Data source: Sinolink Securities; Everbright Securities)
Healthcare innovations is going digital, and at the same time, it is going global. In Indonesia, Ping An Good Doctor is partnering with Grab, the largest on-demand local service platform, to develop GrabHealth, a similar digital healthcare solution. It also has formed a joint venture in Japan to replicate its experience there.
What does the story of Ping’An Good Doctor mean for other emerging markets?
Looking at the underlying market forces of healthcare sector, many developing countries face similar constraints and barriers like China: scarcity of medical resource available (doctors, hospitals, examination facilities etc.); poor management and mobilization of limited resources, which in the end is reflected in low access, poor quality of service and losses for families and the entire economy and society.
All these pull and push factors demand a smarter solution for better access and better quality in the existing system. However, there are notable challenges in other emerging markets that may look different from China.
COVID-19 is the largest public health and humanitarian crisis in our generation. We couldn’t help but to ask ourselves, as millennials born in the digital age, can we find our ways to address this global challenge, and to improve the healthcare system so that tragedy does not happen again? Can we avoid these huge societal, financial and economic losses by using digital solutions? How do we build a lasting business solution that serves the need of individuals in emerging markets like you and me? We do not have a concrete answer yet. But we hope this discussion can bring more intelligent and informed discussions.
Author: Olivia Gao from Future Hub
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