Transforming Health through Technology

by Katharine Fraser

IBM’s Corporate Service Corps Collaborates to Solve China’s Emerging Healthcare Challenges

The healthcare system in China is undergoing major reforms to improve access and affordability for its 1.3 billion citizens. The country faces a rising and increasingly unmet healthcare demand due to an aging population, an expanding middle class, growing urbanization, an emerging prevalence of lifestyle diseases, and progress towards universal healthcare insurance coverage.
The Chinese government is embracing the role of technology in its efforts to develop the healthcare market and relieve pressure on overburdened infrastructure, particularly in Hangzhou, the scenic capital city of Zhejiang province near Shanghai. Since 1991, when a large portion of the city was designated a national development zone for hi-tech industrial development, Hangzhou has positioned itself as the “Silicon Valley” of China. Of particular significance is the city’s focus on developing cutting-edge healthcare technologies.
Leading companies have certainly taken notice of Hangzhou’s potential for technological advancement, not only for the tremendous business implications, but also for the opportunity to contribute to deepening social impact on a broad scale. One such company keen to leverage its strengths for good is IBM, which stands at the intersection of social innovation and technology. The company offers an array of solutions and consulting services for healthcare organizations from optimizing healthcare systems and providing data-driven insight for decision making to using artificial intelligence to accelerate discovery and drive meaningful outcomes.
To support China’s ambitious healthcare goals, in October and November 2017, IBM sent a team of 15 passionate and talented employees representing nine IBM country offices to Hangzhou to participate in the company’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) initiative. The CSC is a Global Pro Bono program designed to develop employee leadership skills while addressing social challenges in underserved markets. In this particular month-long engagement, the employee cohort subdivided into five teams of three pro bono consultants, each assigned to address the particular needs of a local host organization confronting critical health challenges.
IBM’s selection of local partners was consistent with its strategy to target and support high-impact initiatives with global implications, with each cohort focusing on a single, overarching theme. The five CSC sub-teams collaborated with local organizations working in the areas of food safety awareness, hospital systems management, large-scale health information processing, epilepsy monitoring and detection, and elderly care provision.

Safeguarding a Growing Population

Food safety is a major international concern, with related public health impacts largely affecting young families with small children. Responding to the challenge, the Woodpecker Food Safety Center builds awareness around best practices by providing relevant data to the government, researchers, NGOs, and the public, and encouraging citizens, particularly youth, to advocate for food safety.
The first CSC sub-team of three supported Woodpecker in developing an online learning platform for its trainers to teach basic food safety practices and enable resource sharing with local organizations and community leaders. They used IBM’s design thinking methodology to capture the target audience’s needs, hopes, and fears to optimize the platform. The collaboration with CSC participants has accelerated the online platform’s launch timeline and has enabled Woodpecker to partner with more NGOs and increase progress towards its goal of empowering 200 new food-safety trainers by the end of 2018.
Li Haishi, Founder and Director-General of Woodpecker, shared his impressions, saying, “Our team learned important lessons from their working style, including how to design and evaluate. Three key words to highlight the one-month engagement: friendship, success, and professionalism.”

Designing for Hospital Efficiency

Effective streamlining of operations management for hospitals has tremendous implications for cost-efficiency, patient and information flows, and both waste and risk reduction. In China, not only is there an uneven distribution of healthcare resources that favors urban areas, the traditional management style relies on doctors and department heads to perform both medical treatment and operations management. Such a system is outdated and inefficient, often leaving staff overwhelmed.
A second CSC sub-team supported Shulan Hospital (Zhejiang University International Hospital) by designing a streamlined management model and providing guidance on best practices for implementation. Shulan Hospital’s goal is to present an integrated model for all private hospitals, in Hangzhou and across China, to adopt.

Standardizing Healthcare Information Technology

Information processing plays a significant role in disease prevention, diagnosis, testing, and late-treatment intervention. However, in China, national standards in healthcare information technology (HIT) do not meet the current requirements of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) applications, which demand that all data share the same localized, industrial standard.
The third CSC sub-team worked with Open Medical and Healthcare Alliance (OMAHA), a local non-profit committed to standardizing HIT by promoting industry collaboration and open-source personal healthcare data. The CSC participants supported the short, medium, and long-term strategic development of the OMAHA Foundation, the organization’s fundraising arm, to strengthen its ability to sustain OMAHA and other organizations with common goals. Yelin Zhu, secretary general of OMAHA, commented, “We have learned a great deal regarding daily operations, team management, and our team’s career development through the project with the IBM team. They addressed our challenges and also optimized our existing process.”

Supporting Epileptic Patients through Advanced Technologies

The Chinese have a higher than average predisposition to epilepsy, with nearly 10 million confirmed cases to date and growing at a rate of approximately 400,000 patients per year. Despite the alarming trend, there is still no database available for diagnostic assistance and disease early warning. The dynamic monitoring of data of epileptic seizures requires the use of intelligent portable devices that collect information more efficiently than traditional instruments used in hospitals. However, the lack of uniform data standards among device manufacturers has hindered effective clinical data collection and analysis.
The fourth CSC sub-team engaged with Hangzhou Neuro Science & Technology Co., Ltd. (NeuroTech), a hi-tech startup that is the only artificial intelligence (AI) company in the world committed to creating a comprehensive pathological database of the disease. The CSC sub-team delivered a series of recommendations following their month on the ground regarding business development, cloud architecture, and diagnostic algorithms. The CSC team’s support will contribute to NeuroTech’s goal of reaching 1 million patients.

Advancing Smart Elderly Care

The 2016 Hangzhou City Census indicates that it will become the first “aged” city in mainland China. While people aged 60 or older accounted for 21 percent of the city’s population at the end of 2016, the trend suggests this demographic will grow to 25 percent by 2020, or 1.86 million citizens. Though traditional Chinese culture rejects the use of nursing homes, local nursing homes are currently struggling to meet demand, and these pressures will only increase as the population continues to age.
Backey Technology Co., Ltd. has developed an innovative, simple communication device that gives elderly clients access to a variety of services to help them remain in their homes, including quick access to emergency services, food delivery, appliance repair, laundry, and transportation, among others.
The fifth CSC sub-team worked with Backey’s Smart Elderly Care Integrated Service Platform, which is currently implemented in Hangzhou and aims to expand to a national level over the next three years. The objective of IBM’s work with Backey is to compile a list of recommendations to drive up usage of their current SmartCare “99” devices and increase the number of non-government-funded clients.
Through the Corporate Service Corps engagement, IBM gained perspective on the emerging needs of China’s healthcare market and developed insights that are broadly applicable outside Hangzhou. For the individual CSC participants, the experience was transformative. IBM CSC team member Igor Leonov, an Information Technology architect who works for IBM in the United States, reflected on the experience, saying, “I learned the great power of IBMers— that ordinary people can solve extraordinary tasks in spite of language barriers or cultural differences.” The triple benefit of CSC continues to drive the program’s expansion while delivering incalculable value.