China: diagnosing healthcare challenges

Older people require more healthcare.

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And China’s aging demographics are creating a number of unique healthcare issues for the region.

" [In China,] more than 10,000 people per day are diagnosed with cancer.”

China’s population is almost 60 times that of Australia but its per capita healthcare expenditure is less than one-fifth of Australia with roughly half the number of doctors per capita. Meanwhile, China has more than 20 times the number of cancer cases with more than 10,000 people per day diagnosed with cancer.


I recently visited the campus for Tencent, the developer of WeChat and one of China’s leading listed technology conglomerates, in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district as part of an ANZ Opportunity Asia tour. I was amazed how such a city had appeared in the region, transforming what 40 years ago was not much more than a fishing village near the border with Hong Kong into a gleaming technology hub, often referred to as the ‘Silicon Valley’ of China.

But the technology being created inside Tencent goes beyond mobile software. There is an artificial intelligence (AI) powered device playing Xiangqi (a traditional chess game) that has played more than one million humans without defeat and an augmented reality device that saves you the trouble of trying on clothes - and saves a retailer the need to hold inventory.

But what really captures the imagination is how China is using AI to tackle the challenges confronting its immense and ageing population and overcoming resource constraints such as limited health budget and diagnostics facilities within its healthcare sector while addressing the massive health burden of cancer and other diseases.

Creating solutions

Tencent has recently been working to establish itself as a force in the health sector with some of its 40,000 employees dedicated to applying the company’s software, data, AI and other technology capabilities to healthcare problems.

The company had initially approached the healthcare sector thinking that, with a massive ageing cohort among China’s more than 1.4 billion population, the company could bring its software and data prowess – particularly the capabilities in manipulating massive data sets including unstructured data such as images - to create solutions to medical problems. The AI Medical Innovation System (AIMIS) platform is just one of the technologies Tencent has developed which demonstrates those capabilities.

AIMIS uses artificial intelligence combined with giant libraries of diagnostic medical imaging data (x-rays, MRIs, CT scans) and is being actively used in cancer research and diagnosis. It completes various scans of the human body in a real-time, non-invasive manner.

AIMIS also uses augmented reality technology to display internal organs outside the human body, a useful tool given lung cancer is the most prevalent cancer in China. Like the ubiquitous electric vehicles on the streets of the city, here was another reminder of how China is looking to address the public health impacts of its environmental problems.

(Recent pollution indicators in Shenzhen have read 120 parts per million (ppm), levels rated as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups”. An acceptable rating is around 80 ppm, Australia typically has less than 40 ppm).

99% confident

Thousands of terabytes of information are embedded in the AIMIS platform where Tencent’s developers have trained the platform to recognise an organ from a subject of a particular age and to determine with a 99 per cent degree of confidence whether a patient has cancer.

AIMIS enables the detection of abnormalities in the patient’s organs as the technology compares the patient data against millions of different scans of healthy organs from subjects with similar characteristics. If an abnormality is detected, AIMIS determines the type of disease then compares the patient data with millions of different scans depicting diseased organs. In this way, AIMIS facilitates cancer diagnosis in a non-invasive, extremely efficient and rapid way.

Tencent sees healthcare as another commodity, an area in which real process improvements can deliver efficiencies and better outcomes for patients. AIMIS is currently installed in hundreds of hospitals in mainland China and the company is looking at taking it to international markets pending relevant approvals.

Through rapid, non-invasive diagnosis Tencent is taking pressure off China’s hospitals and patients, limiting hospitalisations and long waits. Both China’s healthcare system and patients benefit from cost savings and earlier diagnosis.

The World Health Organisation forecasts absolute numbers of cancer cases in China to continue to grow significantly, from more than 4.2 million in 2018 to more than 6.6 million in 2040. Yet it seems likely China’s concerted focus on public health education (such as reducing the smoking rate to 20 per cent by 2030) and deployment of AI-powered diagnostic technologies such as AIMIS, facilitating rapid and cost-effective screening and detection, should ultimately bring both cancer incidence and related mortality rates down over time.

Opportunity awaits

ANZ has more than 40 years of history in Asia, and we continue to engage in the market to build on this relationship to help Australian businesses of all shapes and sizes to thrive.

Every year, ANZ surveys more than 1,000 Australian businesses, from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to large corporates, to get their view on doing business in Asia.

Over the past five years, the Opportunity Asia report has provided businesses with insights into how they can successfully scale their operations and explore different trading possibilities in Asia.

The 2019 ANZ Opportunity Asia report is available to download on the ANZ Be Trade Ready website.

Applications are also now open for businesses to attend future ANZ Opportunity Asia Delegation programs. For more information, please visit the ANZ Be Trade Ready website.

Felix Sekulla is State Director Health Queensland, Commercial Banking at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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