Published: 01:36, March 10, 2020 | Updated: 06:44, June 6, 2023
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HK online medicine a niche amid the epidemic
By Zhao Ruinan in Hong Kong

Spooked by COVID-19-like symptoms after coming back from the Chinese mainland a few weeks ago, Rose Chu called an online doctor in the hope of allaying her anxiety.

Chu downloaded an app, via which doctors talk to patients about their symptoms, advise them, and make recommendations on which drugs to take. A doctor from Guangzhou, the Guangdong provincial capital, came online quickly. After a 15-minute free video consultation, she was relieved to learn that her symptoms seemed not to add up to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Maybe it’s just as important that she didn’t have to go to a crowded hospital in the midst of an epidemic. As of Monday, Hong Kong had confirmed 115 cases of coronavirus infections. Three patients were dead.

Chu joined millions who have sought medical consultation online in these past six weeks, since the coronavirus set alarms sounding all over the world and set off the lockdown of some cities. Over that timespan, the nascent industry of telemedicine has been injected a fresh momentum.

WeDoctor, an online medical service provider backed by Tencent, started a free platform on Jan 23 for people looking for more information about the virus. By Monday, it had handled 1.5 million calls. Alibaba’s AliHealth, Baidu’s Wenyisheng and JD’s JD Health all offer free online services. Overburdened hospitals are getting some relief, and uneasy patients are being reassured.

Demand for E-medicine

As online medicine seems to be set for a business boom on the mainland, Hong Kong has been slow to pick up the trend. Medical experts expect that to change, as the epidemic persists and anxious people help to create a niche for the industry.

Sergei, a local man in his 20s, said many Hong Kong people, including him, go to nearby clinics when they get sick.

The city’s health service is notorious for being overburdened. Sergei said he tends to visit private clinics, which are easy to find but more expensive than the public hospitals and clinics.

With a population of 7.5 million, Hong Kong has 165 public healthcare centers — 43 public hospitals and 122 clinics — and 12 registered private hospitals.

The vice-president of the Hong Kong Medical Association, David Lam Tzit-yuen, said online medicine, which has helped out a lot of mainland people during the epidemic, could ease long-term strains on the city’s public medical system.

The doctor said that when patients are in stable condition after first-phase treatment and only need simple follow-up medical care, they can talk to doctors online instead of visiting hospitals.

Though promising, the big picture of telemedicine in Hong Kong needs time to roll out.

Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, former Hong Kong Hospital Authority chairman, said the city is not in urgent need of online medical services.

“On the mainland, you can call on the internet and drugs would be delivered to your home, but Hong Kong is so small, wherever you live, there is a clinic or hospital nearby,” Wu said.

Meanwhile, former secretary for food and health Ko Wing-man pinned the regional disparity between the mainland and Hong Kong on willingness to accepting new things: The mainland seems quick to adopt innovations, especially internet-related. Hong Kong people are more cautious.

“Just look at the pervasive digital payment on the mainland,” Ko said.

Efforts for digital diagnosis

Slowly, Hong Kong has made efforts toward digital medicine. The Hospital Authority introduced the General Outpatient Clinic Public Partnership Programme as the vanguard of telemedicine in Hong Kong. The program was tested in three districts in 2014, before expanding to all 18 districts last year.

Patients with chronic illnesses can stay in contact with clinics by phone, and get drug refill prescriptions without seeing a doctor, as long as their condition is stable, said Lam, who is a also member of the Hong Kong Medical Council, a statutory body that supervises doctors.

In March 2016, the government launched the Electronic Health Record Sharing System. Registered users, surpassing 1 million in 2019, can upload personal information and healthcare data, which are open to doctors from different healthcare providers. Patients could easily switch between public and private hospitals without worrying about the transfer of medical records.

But Lam said online medical service is still a restricted area for the city’s doctors because the Hong Kong Medical Council has yet to set any practical rules.

“The council has discussed possible rules over the past year, but nothing has come out,” he said.

Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association’s Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases, said online consultation “is more effective for patients with mild symptoms and is no substitute for person-to-person diagnosis”.

A promising future for online consultation relies on high-end technologies, such as remote testing, and a comprehensive set of regulations, including assessing qualifications of platforms, Leung said. Better integration with other cities in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area also needs to be considered, he added.

In November 2018, WeDoctor created a platform to serve cities in the Bay Area and appointed Wu as its head.

“We have served many people in the Bay Area during the coronavirus outbreak,” Wu said, adding that he hopes Hong Kong’s online medicine could gain momentum with better integration into the Bay Area.