China's online health platforms saw a significant increase in the number of users as fears grew about contracting infections at hospitals amid the new coronavirus outbreak.
Experts remain divided over whether this surge is temporary or whether it will lead to more sustainable and longer-term adoption of digital health services.
"The current surge in online consultation seems to be more of a temporary measure to reduce the burden of hospitals in crisis," Justin Wang, a Shanghai-based partner of L.E.K. Consulting said in an email to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
New user registrations on Hong Kong-listed Ping An Healthcare and Technology Co. Ltd.'s platform, better known as Ping An Good Doctor, surged 900% in January from the previous month, according to a Feb. 14 report by consultancy Bain & Co.
In its earnings call Feb. 11, the company also said 1.11 billion users visited the online platform between Jan. 20 and Feb. 10.
"It's an unprecedented opportunity to change people's habit of medical consulting and perception of online platforms," Ping An Good Doctor Chairman and CEO Wang Tao said in an interview with Market Intelligence.
He said the outbreak made people wary of becoming infected with the coronavirus at hospitals and more receptive to using online platforms.
Ping An Good Doctor, which is one of the largest online health platforms in China, according to analysts, had 315 million registered users as of Dec. 31, 2019, with daily consultations averaging 729,000 for the year.
China's online health platforms, which can be accessed through laptops and mobile devices, allow users to send messages and images to doctors for further consultation and receive prescriptions for diseases already diagnosed by a doctor. Some platforms offer video consultations and voice chats with doctors as well.
However, online health platforms are not permitted by law to make an initial diagnosis of a disease, L.E.K.'s Wang said.
The COVID-19 outbreak, which started in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and spread overseas, has infected over 77,000 people in the country and killed more than 2,600 people, according to Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems and Science and Engineering.
As part of a series of containment measures, the central government advised people to stay home to avoid the spread of the highly infectious virus.
The outbreak has stretched China's hospitals to their limits as they combat the spread of the virus while treating those already infected, said Zhang Jialin, Hong Kong-based healthcare analyst at ICBC, adding that hospitals have been unable to treat some patients with other diseases.
Many public hospitals in Hubei, Guangdong, Zhejiang and other provinces have become dedicated centers to treat coronavirus-affected patients.
Other medical operations have also been affected. Shenzhen-listed Meinian Onehealth Healthcare Holdings Co. Ltd., one of China's largest chains for medical checkups, is struggling to operate many of its centers after Chinese authorities implemented a series of quarantine measures to contain the spread of the virus, rating agency Moody's said in a Feb. 19 report.
China's National Health Commission also encouraged patients to use online health platforms for follow-up treatments for chronic diseases and common illnesses to avoid infections at hospitals, according to a Feb. 4 notice on its website.
Online health platform DXY, in which Tencent Holdings Ltd. has a minority stake, said the largest number of consultations since the virus outbreak were related to children, gynecological problems and skin ailments.
Tencent-backed WeDoctor, meanwhile, said many of its platform's users were keen for doctors to help them interpret medical test results.
Questions remain, however, whether the bump in online usage can be sustained once the virus outbreak is contained, said ICBC's Zhang.
"Technology companies cannot disrupt this sector as they did others, with people simply switching from offline to online," he said. Certain procedures like body checkups or blood tests can only be done at hospitals.
Quite often, doctors will also need to see the patient in person to make an accurate diagnosis.
Chinese hospitals provided 8.31 billion consultations and treatments to patients in 2018, according to the National Health Commission.
Visits to hospitals are unlikely to be replaced significantly by online consultations, said L.E.K's Wang, adding the government does not have a strong reason to significantly ease regulations related to online health platforms.
But the virus outbreak could encourage people to use digital health platforms more actively, according to some experts.
"The short-term surge will help cultivate users and build up their habit of using online platforms, which will help drive growth even after the outbreak," Zhang Xianyi, partner at Bain & Co., said in the report.