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China Health Telemedicine
Online medical consultation sees fast growth amid fight against virus

Seeing a doctor online has quickly become a popular way of accessing medical services during the outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia (NCP) in China which has caused the deaths of more than 1,100 people so far.

Fu, a 30-year-old white collar worker based in Shanghai, told the Global Times over the weekend that she had consulted a doctor on an online medical platform at the end of January when she felt some difficulty breathing smoothly but did not show any other typical symptom of the coronavirus pneumonia such as fever, coughing or a runny nose.

Her doctor suggested she stay at home and observe her condition for a few days, as it would be more dangerous to visit a hospital when that might increase her risk of cross-infection.

Fu had had no direct contact with people who had come from Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province, which has been hardest hit by the epidemic.

As of press time on Wednesday, a total of 44,747 people had tested positive for NCP across the country, and 1,114 had died. For Hubei, confirmed cases had increased to 33,366 and the death toll had hit 1,068.

"I was so nervous and anxious as the outbreak of the coronavirus was so quick and scary," said Fu, adding that her "breathing symptom" might have been related to mounting anxiety.

After nine days of observation, during which Fu shifted her attention from her body to tasks likes telecommuting, exercising at home and watching TV dramas, she felt well.

Fu is just one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese staying at home who turned to online medical consultation for help as soon as such services were launched at the beginning of the Spring Festival holidays on January 24.

Chinese internet giants including Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com Inc, as well as a slew of online telemedicine platforms like WeDoctor, DXY.cn and Chunyu Doctor, have stepped up efforts by offering such online services.

Alibaba launched free consultation services on both its online shopping platform Taobao and its mobile payment app Alipay, where hundreds of professional doctors from all over the country provide medical services.

Its service homepage received nearly 400,000 visits within 24 hours after launching on January 24, with 97 percent of visitors from Hubei, according to data from AliHealth, the health unit of Alibaba.

An average of 3,000 people per hour consulted the platform and 90 percent of questions were about the novel coronavirus and how to prevent infection.

The average daily consultation volume of JD Health, the health unit of JD.com, has been 100,000 since January 26. During peak times, the free consultation service is able to deal with tens of thousands of patients an hour. Nearly 60 percent of all free consultation requests are received and handled by respiratory physicians, a JD spokesperson told the Global Times.

Tencent's WeChat unit usually works around the clock during the Spring Festival break as Chinese people send currents of blessings and digital red envelopes. This year, the unit has added content about fighting the virus on its WeChat platform.

Tencent Healthcare, the group's healthcare unit, has also joined the fight, expanding its scale of physicians and adjusting its ratio of doctors more closely related to the epidemic.

Zeng Shourun, director of Tencent Healthcare, told the Global Times that the company began providing a free medical consultation service on January 26, when nationwide demand began to surge.

"It's free for consumers to receive medical consultations. Our platform pays for the physicians so they are motivated to respond to patients' needs," said Zeng.

Online healthcare boost

"The SARS outbreak in 2003 led to the development of e-commerce as an overall industry, and we are all enjoying the fruits of that nearly 20 years later. This epidemic has similar potential to lead to long-lasting and positive breakthroughs in healthcare over time," the JD spokesperson said.

The epidemic may have a far-reaching impact on the development of the country's medical and health industry, medical reform, pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, the spokesperson added.

The government and the nation's healthcare sector have been awakened to the advantages of this new model of online consultation, which can easily put patients in touch with doctors rather than have them wait months for an available appointment.

"In some small cities or remote areas, people have to drive many miles to get to a standard hospital, yet they can access renowned doctors from major cities via the internet," said Zeng.

People tend to crowd into large public hospitals, which supposedly have the best doctors, for any sickness from a simple cold to cancer.

"However, some ordinary diseases can be well treated in smaller hospitals. That's why we need online medical treatment, to direct people to where they should go and alleviate the pressure on hospitals," Zeng explained.

The need for a healthcare revolution was acute even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the epidemic has helped boost the development of online healthcare by revealing its value to society, observers said.

The market value of the online healthcare sector in China is poised to surge to 700 billion yuan ($100 billion) this year, according to third-party data provider MobData.

Compared to other sectors harvesting dividends from the development of the internet, such as online food delivery services, the mobile healthcare sector has been slowly pushing ahead, according to a report from

Jiemian.com citing Chunyu Doctor CEO Wang Yuxiao.

The sector is still in an early development phase and different players have not yet become fiercely competitive. Wang believes the next three to five years will be key to getting the sector on track and transforming it.