Coronavirus: Chinese turn to Dr Google
Pretoria — Spooked by a sneeze or a cough, Chinese consumers are turning to online consultations in droves for advice about possible coronavirus symptoms — a boon for a fledgling industry that has struggled to win over customers.
Millions of Chinese are stuck at home under quarantine restrictions imposed by authorities or firms.
Even if not under quarantine, many are too worried to venture for long outside or to visit a hospital for other ailments as they fear they might catch the virus.
The surge of inquiries has also been driven by health-care platforms offering some services for free.
JD Health, an arm of JD.com Inc, has seen its daily volume of respiratory-related online consultations jump by nine times, while mental health consultations have grown five to seven times, said Xiao Jianbo, general manager of online health care.
“Most of the requests I’ve had between the end of January and mid-February were about the coronavirus,” said Liu Yafeng, a doctor who works for JD Health. “People are so worried, even just by a sneeze.”
Such is the state of fretfulness that “always thinking I’ve been infected by the virus” has become a trending topic, with more than 570 million views on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.
Liu worked around 12 hours a day from the end of January to mid-February, but in a positive sign panic about the epidemic is receding, he now works eight hours a day.
Baidu Inc said its online doctor consultation platform, Wenyisheng (“Ask Doctor”) has been handling around 850000 free inquiries daily. Of those, 400000 were respiratory-related, around 50 times the level seen a year earlier.
Alibaba Health Information Technology Ltd said it exceeded 100000 consultations a day on January 29, and that some of its respiratory doctors were providing more than 200 consultations daily.
Online health care has long been seen as a promising sector in China, where there is a dearth of doctors and patients often have to travel hundreds of kilometres to see a specialist. But the industry had struggled to win over customers and big listed firms like Alibaba Health and Ping An Good Doctor have yet to turn a profit.
Online health care does not benefit much from word of mouth, industry executives say. “Health consultations are very private, so you don’t see a lot of people sharing their health-care experience on social media,” said Xiao.
The coronavirus has reset expectations, with shares in Alibaba Health surging 58% for the year to date and Ping An Good Doctor’s stock climbing 33%. While analysts say more venture capital funding could flow into the sector, some industry veterans warn that the sector has a long way to go. “The outbreak has educated the market, but I don’t think China’s online health care has taken off because of this,” said Simon He of Shanghai-based Eminence Ventures.