China leading in healthcare technology, says Medix chief

September 06, 2018 13:04
Sigal Atzmon, president and CEO of healthcare management service firm Medix, believes China will lead the pack in disrupting the healthcare sector with advanced technology. Photo: Medix

Accelerating tech innovations are transforming the healthcare industry, and both tech giants and startups are quick to seize business opportunities in such fields as pharmaceuticals and genomics.

Sigal Atzmon, president and chief executive of Medix Global, a leading healthcare management services company, believes that China will lead the pack in finding new healthcare solutions through the deployment of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, and wearables.

EJ Insight: We have seen the healthcare industry embracing new technology, especially wearable sensors and AI-enabled technology. In your view, what trends are impacting the healthcare industry the most?

Atzmon: I think AI will really be the next big thing, and it’s really going to revolutionize the way healthcare is provided and consumed. It’s not going to take away doctors completely, or hospitals, or clinics, but it is going to change the industry into a new landscape.

For example, AI is going to fast-track radiology. AI can now look at Computed Tomography (CT) scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans, etc. It can spot if there is something wrong in the scan. When there is something wrong, certain AI solutions can already say what is wrong, and share the measurements of what is wrong for diagnosis.

And when people get sick, they can have a whole big data analytics capability based on AI and machine learning that actually look at all the people in the world like them with the same genetic background, and see what treatment works for the kind of person.

Also, you have your wearables, so the clinic will get a lot of data from your wearables every day, and they will be able to say “Oh! There is a trend going on. This person might be getting something, so let’s get him early and treat him early.”

What we are going to see in the future is one system where everything sits: people’s personal medical record, genetic background, medical history, and so on. So when someone starts to feel the symptoms, before they go to a doctor, they will have a one-click button on their computer – the same way you would Google something today – where they can get a report about the symptoms and next steps to take. The whole [healthcare] ecosystem is going to change.

Q: Why do you think China will lead the pack in disrupting the healthcare sector with advanced technology?

A: If you look at who has invested in startups and AI the most up till now, you have three main landscapes: the US, Israel, and China. We believe China is going to be at the forefront of AI.

In the US, it is more difficult to implement AI solutions. In order to have all hospitals implement AI-based radiology solutions, you need to actually take down the existing infrastructure. It is difficult to break down the existing infrastructure and build a new one in its place.

But take China for example. First of all, China is huge, and mostly communicates in one written language, which creates a huge amount of data that can be centralized on a platform. In contrast, in the US, the data is spread across different states, different systems, under different ownership. In Europe, there are different languages with completely different systems between countries.

I believe China is going to be the frontrunner [of AI healthcare]. They are creating a far more cost-efficient, faster, digital technology-based healthcare system.

Q: How would new technology solutions address the issues in China’s healthcare sector?

A: For many years, one of the big burdens for China has been that the public medical system was entirely based on hospitals. Hospitals are expensive; overheads are very high; they are overcrowded. So now big Chinese tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent are setting up out-patient clinics, investing in actual places for people to go to for small procedures, minor treatments and prescriptions. In addition, the decision-making in diagnosis is going to be based on chatbots, AI, and other digital health solutions; that’s going to be a very big change.

On the other hand, to address the doctor shortage in the country, think about robotic surgery. In the future, a doctor in Shanghai will be able to sit in front of a computer when a robotic surgeon will do the surgery in another hospital in another province far away.

You will never have enough doctors [for the whole country], so what you need to do is scale their capabilities. With robotic surgery, ten doctors with great expertise can perform like a hundred doctors that are spread across different provinces. That is how technology is going to scale expertise and implement it all across China.

Q: Despite the evolution driven by new technology, what technology transformation challenges do you see facing the Chinese healthcare sector?

A: I think that it's a process and the need [for healthcare services] is very strong. I think when the Chinese government supports something and sets it as a goal in their “five-year plan”, they usually deliver. What's going on [in China healthcare sector] is so big, that even if only 70 percent of this comes true, it's a revolution.

I have spoken a lot about these things in conferences and public speaking. I tell the world, 'You should watch China; the next big thing in AI and digital health is going to come from there.' And the world has to learn a lot from what's going on there.

One challenge I can think of is that Chinese people don't always trust the Chinese healthcare system. For the ones who have the capabilities, they like to go abroad for treatment and listen to global experts. Another example is that Chinese people prefer non-Chinese drugs, like branded drugs, or when they do genetic tests, they prefer to do it abroad. I think the Chinese government and the big players need to work to improve that trust element and bring global expertise into China. It’s a process.

Q: In the development of the healthcare sector in the region, is there any significant role that Hong Kong could play?

A: First of all, it's a bridge between the world and China for a lot of companies. It has a very good legal framework and a very strong ecosystem. I think there are great capabilities in Hong Kong. I also think the financial landscape in Hong Kong is obviously attractive and a lot of companies like to come and be listed in Hong Kong. That is going to continue and we will see a stronger collaboration between Hong Kong and China.

But obviously, the needs of Hong Kong to implement new [healthcare] technologies will be slightly slower than China. China is very advanced, everyone is very techie and everyone is very mobile; China does things on mobile through apps like WeChat that the world is not there yet. They're just so advanced.

Q: Will Medix speed up its expansion in China and Hong Kong market?

A: We have offices in Shanghai, and we have headquarters here in Hong Kong. We continue to invest, develop, and expand in China. And we're constantly looking for additional startups to invest in China or to collaborate; we're having negotiations with a few. There are a few very exciting deals on the table that are going to make a lot of noise in the coming few months.

We see great opportunities for startups. Most of them have a strong technology but they don't have the operational experience to deploy medical management services or solutions. So they can plug their technology into our global system.

For startups joining our ecosystem, it's a straight plug-in to a huge market, as we work in all of Asia-Pacific including China and 90 other countries. It’s a fast track into creating income, creating traction, creating customers without needing to create a whole medical operational platform, because Medix provides that.

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EJ Insight writer