IBM steps up healthcare application work in China

China's government has promised massive healthcare reform spending

IBM is expanding work on applications for use in Chinese hospitals after spotting an opportunity in the country's massive spending plan for healthcare reform.

It plans to work with China to provide hospitals with platforms for collaboration and information sharing designed at the company's new healthcare product lab in Beijing. Among the applications being worked on at the lab are those that display electronic health records shared between hospitals, allow virtual conferences between doctors and interpret terms used in traditional Chinese medicine for digital classification.

China this year announced plans to spend 850 billion yuan (US$125 billion) to achieve universal healthcare. While the government has not made clear how much of that sum is for IT spending, the package still creates major opportunity for healthcare products, said Matt Wang, IBM vice president in charge of the company's China Development Labs.

"The market is one of the biggest," Wang said. "This is much bigger than telecoms or even banking."

IBM's system for patient information sharing is already in place between one Beijing community hospital and a nearby university-owned hospital. By linking the medical records at the two locations, the system is partly meant to encourage patients to go to the smaller community hospital for minor health problems, said Robert Bu, manager of IBM's Beijing healthcare lab.

IBM aims to place such systems around China and link urban hospitals with those in less developed rural areas.

Chinese hospitals are often extremely crowded, and patients in the country of 1.3 billion people are sometimes rushed through appointments.

IBM is also deploying a digital record system that allows storage of information based on traditional Chinese medicine at the Guangdong Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in southern China.

The system uses an IBM analytic tool for Chinese language notes that interprets and stores phrases with no equivalent in Western medicine. A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine might, for instance, record a patient's tongue color in Chinese as "the sea and the sky merged into one," something usually difficult to classify under international standards for health information exchange, Bu said.

One challenge for healthcare applications to be used in China is ensuring simplicity, Bu said. Chinese doctors not fully proficient with computers might not understand a complex digital form that lets them update a patient's shared record, Bu said.

Bureaucratic obstacles exist too. Public Chinese hospitals can be operated by universities, the government or the military, and different management systems at each could make integrating their systems difficult, Bu said.

But the central government's ability to push initiatives through nationwide does give China one advantage over other countries, Wang said.

"When they establish policy, it will get executed," he said.