National / Science & Health

Telemedicine via smartphone apps gaining in popularity in Japan

by Marie Kobayashi

Kyodo

Remote medical consultation services that connect doctors and patients via smartphones and other devices are spreading across Japan, with their popularity boosted by recent deregulation of telemedicine.

Under deregulation in April, health insurance can now be used for such consultations, and health care startups are expected to further accelerate the development of remote health care services that use artificial intelligence amid wider accumulation of health data on individuals.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry unveiled its vision for developing and utilizing a health care database to support telemedicine applications for remote diagnosis, remote treatment and telesurgery in its proposal titled “The Japan Vision: Health Care 2035,” along with changes in the social environment, including a rapidly aging population and the advancement of medical technology.

As an experiment for remote consultations, this reporter tried using the health care mobile app called curon, which is operated by Tokyo-based health care startup Micin Inc.

After explaining via smartphone that “I have been taking large amounts of painkillers because I have been bothered by frequent headaches and fevers recently,” the doctor who appeared in a videophone call replied, “You’ll lessen the strain on your stomach and kidneys if you change your medication.”

The service was convenient since it could be used at leisure without requiring a physical visit to a hospital. Even the one-on-one dialogue via remote consultation somehow felt closer than a physical face-to-face meeting with a doctor.

Currently, about 650 health care institutions use curon, which specializes in consultations for chronic diseases, including diabetes, that require continuous medical care.

In July, the app was upgraded with new functions that allow patients to share information with doctors that is collected at home, such as their blood pressure, amount of exercise and hours of sleep. Generally, AI maximizes its potential in data analysis when large amounts of information are collected.

Seigo Hara, a doctor and chief executive officer of Micin, imagines that in the future, AI will advise doctors to help compensate for their differences in ability or lack of experience in certain fields to provide “the best treatment plan for each patient.”

AI, for example, might advise doctors about when a patient might likely stop taking medication or appropriate ways for patients to take their meals.

China has seen an advancement in the merger of medicine and information technology. Health care and technology company Ping An Good Doctor has about 1,000 doctors who provide 370,000 online remote consultations per day in cooperation with other hospitals.

By accumulating data from 300 million cases and with the support of an AI-based diagnostic system, the company has been able to provide enormous amounts of medical consultations beyond what could ever be conceived at a conventional hospital.

In a lecture in Tokyo in July, Oliver Wang, chairman and CEO of Ping An Good Doctor, said, “Telemedicine can solve health care problems in China, such as shortages of doctors and long waiting lines at hospitals.” He stressed his goal of having “a family doctor for every family.”

In Japan, curon vies with other remote consultation service platforms such as MRT Inc.’s Pocket Doctor and Medley Inc.’s Clinics, among others.

One person with knowledge of the industry predicts “a pivot to the utilization of health data with apps serving as a basis” and the possibility of developing a health care service using remote consultations similar to China’s system.

Even so, a Japanese expert on health care also pointed out issues that can arise with the expansion of remote medical consultations.

“There is a risk that rare diseases, not included in data, can be overlooked,” Akira Yokouchi of the Nomura Research Institute said, while at the same time expressing his hope for the improvement of the quality of health care.