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January 24, 2018

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Pharma, tech giants team up to build digital ecosystem

SHANGHAI fund company employee Cathy Wang said she and several friends searched the net for a private clinic in Hong Kong to make reservations to get Gardasil 9 shots against a common virus that can cause cervical cancer.

Gardasil 9, put out by MSD, isn’t yet available on the mainland, but the Gardasil 4 vaccine is.

Sammi Zheng, a Beijing office worker in her early 30s, learned about the latter vaccine from online postings and chose to get an inoculation at a local community health clinic.

“I decided to get the inoculation after reading about the disease and the vaccine, but I wanted to save myself the trouble of traveling to Hong Kong,” she said.

The modern generation of young people, who rely on digital devices for so many aspects of their daily lives, is plumbing the Internet for medical information amid widespread concern about health.

A survey of 1,400 patients last year by Kantar Health and the online medical community found respondents were spending about a quarter of their online time searching for information on disease and healthcare on medical sites, WeChat postings and pharmaceutical platforms.

But is the information always accurate and reliable?

Pharmaceutical companies and Internet service providers are seeking to ensure that the information they provide is accurate. They have also developed systems to track drugs sold online to make sure they are genuine.

Since last year, MSD China has distributed its Gardasil 4 human papillomavirus vaccine, also known as HPV, through mainland distributor Chongqing Zhifei Biological Products Co.

Earlier this month, it entered into a partnership with AliHealth to target women between the ages of 20 and 45 to provide them information on cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine.

“Amid a rising online population in China, we want to use the most efficient channel to help consumers get a better understanding of disease and health risks,” MSD China President Joseph Romanelli said in an interview with Shanghai Daily earlier this month. “We hope to work closer with partners adept in digital technologies to help build an ecosystem that will ultimately help both physicians and patients.”

Digital transformation in the pharmaceutical industry has come at a slower pace than development in industries such as finance, he added.

Easy reach

Other multinational drug companies are tapping into the convenience of smartphone applications and the user bases of Internet providers such as Alibaba.

Bayer is using digital channels to promote its self-care concepts and perhaps sales of its products. The Germany-based company wants to combine its resources with platforms such as Alibaba’s Tmall Global flagship store to integrate with Alibaba’s cross-border e-commerce ecosystem and merchandising capabilities.

China Biological Tech Co Vice President Wu Yonglin said his company is teaming up with Alibaba’s AliHealth to explore new models to make healthcare information more accessible to consumers under the “Health China 2030” plan.

Online appointments for inoculations of selected adult vaccines are already available for residents in more than 1,000 community health centers in 100 cities in China, using the resources of a link with AliHealth.

“It’s a big trend for pharma companies to adopt digital ways of dispersing information on health and disease management,” said Yang Hongfei, co-founder of Hangzhou Firestone Technology Co, which provides healthcare and pharmaceutical industry data to governments and businesses.

Digital channels also offer new ways for patients to manage their chronic disease when they are not seeing doctors or going to hospitals.

The collection of user behavioral data remains a sticky issue, Yang said. It’s still too early to determine how the data may improve operational efficiency.

Ensuring that consumers get objective, fair healthcare information is a core issue for involved players, he added.

Wang Wenjing, deputy secretary-general of the China International Exchange and Promotion Association for Medical and Healthcare, said disease management and public health awareness would be greatly improved if Internet companies and the pharma industry collaborate.

Lin Jixiang, president of the Beicai Community Health Service Center in Pudong, said that such relationships help community hospital doctors ensure that patients take appropriate dosages of medicine and that the public receives proper advice on lifestyle and diet factors that may have an impact on health.

Jin Xiaodong, head of Sanofi China’s cardiovascular business unit, said using the AliHealth platform enables his company to implement initiatives that affect patients and physicians in efficient, more accessible ways.


An AliHealth official told Shanghai Daily that patient education and healthcare information has been built upon the company’s medicine-tracking technology. Digital channels also allow services more tailor-made to patient needs.

Digital health management is still in its formative stages at AliHealth, amid hopes that more players will be drawn into the mix.

As another Internet giant, Tencent is pursuing digital healthcare initiatives mostly aimed at medical institutions and healthcare service providers. Its artificial intelligence program is helping nearly 100 hospitals in medical imaging and screening for certain types of early-stage cancer.

In late December, Tencent launched its own medical-information platform, called Tencent Yidian, through its popular social networking application WeChat. The initiative provides authoritative health-related information to users.

Zhang Meng, Tencent vice president and head of the medical-information center, told a media interview in late December that the company is not initially seeking profit from the platform. The emphasis is first and foremost high-quality content, he said.

China’s largest search engine Baidu has curbed lucrative healthcare adverts and paid search results following regulatory orders after a scandal in mid 2016 and the compnay also shut down its mobile healthcare business Baidu Doctor to merge with its artificial intelligecne operations in early 2017. It has also shifted its focus toward leveraging artificial intellingence to help with doctors’ recommendations and treatment options.


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