As soon as you’re diagnosed as diabetic, ads for treatments show up on social feeds. You get alerts on health supplements, maybe nutrition tips. Prompts on insurance policies pop up on your phone.
That’s not a scene from Minority Report. It’s a manifestation of the trove of data harnessed by WeDoctor, one of China’s most richly valued online health outfits, in an ambitious quest to upend the business of personal care. The ads may not be conspicuous — they can be buried within a pitch about chronic diseases — but the target is uncannily precise: you.
Backed by Tencent Holdings Ltd., WeDoctor joins a growing contingent of tech giants hoping to revolutionize an industry seemingly impervious to online disruption. While the likes of Google seek to unlock the secrets of immortality or unravel medical mysteries, WeDoctor’s focusing on something more pragmatic: making money by unclogging bottlenecks in a Chinese health care market slated to hit 8 trillion yuan ($1.2 trillion) by 2020.
Founded by artificial intelligence maven Jerry Liao Jieyuan in 2010, WeDoctor’s ambitions are nothing short of an Amazon for health care. Once a scrappy startup that helped people book doctors, it’s grown into a outfit valued at $5.5 billion that operates online follow-up consultations, drug prescriptions and actual clinics staffed by physicians. It’s building AI to parse data, helping detect ailments like cervical cancer. It sells an Amazon Echo-like $600 speaker for the home that can link to fitness wearables and doubles as a doctors’ hotline.
In Chinese fashion, it’s even concocted a game out of treating maladies: a function that helps sufferers ask questions and reward the best answers. To fund all that, WeDoctor’s counting on an IPO as soon as 2019.
“AI won’t replace doctors but it will become an important tool for doctors and help improve their efficiency and accuracy,” Liao, also a co-founder of speech-recognition specialist iFlytek Co., said in an written response to questions. “Through the internet and AI, China’s health care services will improve significantly in the next five to 10 years.”
WeDoctor’s come a ways since Liao began traversing the country trying to convince hospitals to get online. Formally known as We Doctor Holdings Ltd., the Hangzhou-based firm this year scored one of the largest fundraisings by a health startup, securing $500 million from investors including insurer AIA Group Ltd., property developer New World Development Co. and Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group.
It’s now angling to break into an area that’s stymied some of the country’s deepest pockets, including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Baidu Inc. But the impetus to overhaul the sector is clear to anyone who’s visited a Chinese hospital, many of which are dingy affairs run by state organs that pay doctors less than $10,000 a year on average. If WeDoctor’s model takes off, it may levy an additional cost on patients — the price of cutting through red tape and wait times at government clinics.
“The industry is still in its early stage, so hard to say which one has the most potential,” said Leon Qi, head of Asian financials research for Daiwa Capital. “While internet companies have advantage in their online user traffic, we see offline players, either supported by financial institutions or other conglomerates, have edges in their offline distribution and offline medical resources. Hence we do not see it as a ‘winner takes all’ business.”
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Underpinning the business is the freedom to collect and use patient data on a scale unparalleled in much of the rest of the world, particularly as regulators grow increasingly wary of the influence of tech giants. China has yet to establish laws to protect personal information but is building health profiles on its 1.3 billion citizens — a worldwide first for scale.
That allows WeDoctor, and peers such as Ping An Insurance Group Co.’s Good Doctor, to tinker in areas often off-limits to rivals. Google’s Deepmind, for one, drew fire from British regulators for inappropriately accessing hospital records. In the United States, the industry navigates a web of regulations designed to protect patient privacy.
“There’s a lot of issues that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to privacy, including who can access data on patient’s medical records and how that data can be used,” Jason Siu, an analyst with Guosen Securities, wrote in a report.
WeDoctor isn’t shy about its ability to glean data. Users in China are accustomed to surveillance and having their information shared with the government, and information leaks — when publicized — seldom cause ripples. Jeff Chen, a former HSBC banker who now heads strategy for the firm, talks openly about how unfettered access to medical data helps profile users and create powerful marketing tools for big pharma and insurance.