Countries around the world are turning to digital technology and AI to provide more cost-effective and highly scalable means to deliver services. This is particularly important for China with its ageing population and shortage of medical staff.

Medical services can be scarce in China’s rural areas, while in urban areas services are highly strained due to large patient volumes. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), China has two practicing doctors per 1,000 persons, compared with 2.9 for UK and 4.3 for Germany. It also has only 2.7 nurses per 1,000 persons, compared with 7.8 for UK and 12.9 for Germany. In addition, China is ageing more rapidly than almost any country in the world, due mainly to its previous one-child policy. By 2050, China will have around 330 million people over 65 with nearly a third of its population over 60.

AI offers the potential to break out of the ‘iron triangle’ dependencies of healthcare priorities: access, cost and quality. These inherent trade-offs traditionally mean we cannot improve one priority without sacrificing another. However, AI could democratise health care and boost access for underserved communities while lowering costs and maintaining, if not also improving, quality. According to the consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan, AI has the potential to improve the outcomes of medical treatment by 30–40 per cent and reduce costs by as much as 50 per cent.

In 2017, when China’s State Council laid out its AI strategic plan, it called for the development of a whole gamut of AI and AI-related healthcare technologies, such as intelligent diagnosis, wearables, AI health monitoring, robot-assisted surgeries, intelligent medical image recognition and medical genomics, with a strong emphasis on elderly care. In terms of AI research, a study by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence predicts that China will overtake the US in total number of top 10 per cent AI research papers by 2020, and top 1 per cent papers by 2025.


Andy Chun

Adjunct professor at City University of Hong Kong and council member and convenor of the AI Specialist Group, Hong Kong Computer Society