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Tongrentang looks to integrate AI into traditional Chinese medicine

Beijing Tongrentang Co. Ltd.'s TRT International plans to combine traditional Chinese medicines with virtual reality technology in an effort to expand its market share outside China.

Alex Cahana, senior vice president of digital strategy for TRT International, spoke with S&P Global Market Intelligence on the sidelines at the HealthTech Asia 2017 conference in Hong Kong to discuss what the new integration means for the traditional Chinese medicine brand.

Founded in 1669, Tongrentang is the world's largest producer of traditional Chinese medicine, and is leveraging the branding power of its $2.5 billion empire to expand into new technologies, which Cahana referred to as "digiceuticals."

"People think of technology as something to make your life more comfortable, but not as an instrument that could cure you," said Cahana, who previously served as a professor and chief of the division of pain medicine at Washington University. He delivered lectures on the direct relationship between environmental factors and pain and has done research on eradicating pain by artificially changing a patient's environment by using virtual reality goggles.

"Our CEO, Mr. Ji Guang-fei, noticed that there is a growing awareness of integrated health in the U.S. People aren't happy with the results of Western medicine with their lifestyle diseases and they are going to TCM doctors for help, but they don't have a strong digital platform. A typical doctor in the U.S. will have an electronic health record, a cloud for analytics, reports and access to insurance. Our goal is to update the digital literacy of the industry."

According to Cahana, the health care industry in the U.S. is worth $3.2 trillion, and so-called integrative medicine makes up $62 billion of that. About 2% of the population engages with traditional Chinese medicine. The challenge for Tongrentang is to legitimize the practice in the mainstream market. "That's why digital strategy is the way to go," said Cahana.

"Even though the adoption and awareness rate of TCM is quite low, a lot has been done in the last few decades. There are large universities that teach acupuncture or natural medicine. Forty out of the 50 states issue licenses for acupuncture. The National Institutes of Health has created an NIH of Complementary Medicine, so there is a research center to prove the efficacy of these methods.

"Right now, a TCM practitioner in Chinatown has nothing to show for his success but word of mouth — that's not going to achieve anything. This is where the digital strategy comes into play. If you can gather data from the electronic health record, the Fitbit, the genomics and blood test that shows there are improvements on conditions such as hypertension, chronic pain or diabetes a year later, then the insurance companies are going to pay for it."

Cahana revealed that the company had signed a contract with an insurance company to test virtual reality options for pain treatment. In addition, the FDA has so far approved six of its herbal remedies, including Ganmao Qingre Keli and Shiquan Dabu Wan, which are used to treat the flu and rebalance the body, respectively.

TRT International's digital strategy follows efforts from pharmaceutical giants such as Novartis AG, Johnson & Johnson, and Medtronic PLC. Novartis is teaming up with Alphabet's Verily to develop diabetes care technologies, while Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic have been developing integrative approaches with IBM's Watson Health.

The implementation of the digiceutical platform for TRT International in the U.S. is still in its early stages, but Cahana has put plans in place. The first wave of electronic health records is set to be deployed in clinics, while Cahana is in talks with virtual reality, sensor and digital companies to create a platform to take TRT International to the next level. "We are working with a couple of ex-Watson Health employees who are machine learning engine geniuses to build artificial intelligence, which would work in unison with TRT's upcoming electronic records and in turn become an adaptive system."

This is where Cahana's specialty in environmental factors and pain coincide with traditional Chinese medicine's holistic view of medicine. He anticipates that through the integration of a network of data gathered through the clinics and the use of MLEs, the artificial intelligence can provide an integrative diagnosis.

"Through the data collected we can set algorithms where the computer can teach itself. For example, if a computer can detect through facial expression through a sensor that someone is depressed, then it could arrive at the conclusion that they'll be more susceptible to pain and help with the diagnosis and treatment of that patient," he said.