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Fighting cancer with IT, an interview with Medistar founder Claire Wang

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Some still remember the 'barefoot doctors' that emerged during the Cultural Revolution to provide basic care to China's rural poor. Since those makeshift days, the country has grown its economy tremendously, with developmental strides raising millions of its citizens out of poverty. But, with an economy sitting at second largest in the world, China's health index only ranks 91 out of 187 countries, according to UN development data.

Technological innovation often has a way of coming face to face with the world's most arduous problems. And since 2009, China has seen an influx in healthcare tech startups and foreign investment firms hustling to make a dent in the labyrinthine Chinese health system using modern applications. VoxelCloud and The Care Voice are just two of a growing number of startups utilizing big data and 4G mobile platforms to try and fill in China's healthcare gaps.

Ad a company called Medistar to that quickly growing group. Pioneered in Yunnan's Spring City and then expanded into Shanghai, Medistar draws from a network of more than 400 US cancer treatment professionals to provide second opinion counseling to patients in China. Since 2014, Kunming native and co-founder of Medistar, Claire Wang, has set out on a mission to bridge the gap between Chinese cancer patents and the Western medical world.

Kunming is far from synonymous with tech innovation — although it is a field to which many provincial planners currently stake their reputations. To learn more about this intriguing nexus of patients, tech and foreign doctors, we recently sat down with Wang to find out why she chose Kunming and what sparked her involvement in this nascent industry.

GoKunming: Can you begin by discussing what Medistar is and how it works?

Claire Wang: We offer synchronous virtual consultation with physicians — we help cancer patients mainly. They can use our platform and connect with US physicians instantly and get a second or third medical opinion. By synchronous I mean they can connect with them instantaneously by video conference so they can really interact with the physicians after uploading their medical documents and personally describing their symptoms. We also provide medical interpreters to facilitate that communication.

Medistar was founded in 2014. My partner back then, Dai Wei, was in charge of expanding the network of physicians and hospital partners in the US, while I was in charge of establishing partnerships here in China by connecting with hospitals and other mobile health platforms.

GK: Did your early exposure to the Chinese healthcare system have an influence on you getting into this type of work?

Wang: I was born and raised in Kunming, and my experience with public hospitals has been bad since the very beginning. I hated going to hospitals, they were so crowded. The doctors and nurses were often very cold and rarely took the time to explain anything to you. Once, I was hospitalized for a month and quarantined in a room. I experienced a general lack of personal attention and care. I started to think about why this was the case. All around China you see innovation, but in healthcare, if you go to any hospital today, it is the same as it was 20 years ago.

Co-founder of Medistar, Claire Wang
Co-founder of Medistar, Claire Wang

GK: Where does Medistar find itself from a legal standpoint, and have you run into any serious issues?

Wang: Right now we are just a private enterprise. The government encourages innovation and provides plenty of policy incentives. As a start-up, it's a great time to create a business here in China. We have gotten grants from both the governments in Shanghai and Beijing for winning several start-up competitions. And for us as a company, we really need to analyze the challenges the government is facing in terms of healthcare. Each year we pay extremely close attention to the Party Congress, and all announcements and policy papers from the Ministry of Health to see how what we do fits into their strategies.

Because telemedicine is such a new concept, not only in Kunming — both in first-tier cities and all around the world — it was initially very difficult to explain to people how it works. Since there are are so many [confidence] scams in China, especially with healthcare, it was difficult to convince clients that we are who we say we are, and that there are real US physicians on the other end of the conversation. Since the existing hospitals are so bureaucratic, it was also a challenge to break into the existing systems.

GK: How do you establish trust between your services and the Chinese public?

Wang: By offering synchronous medical consultations, the patient can really see and interact with the US physician on the other end. We know trust is a huge issue in Chinese society in general. But by taking care of all of the details in the process, we gain trust from both our partners and clients. We also have success stories to back up our claims of efficacy.

GK: When looking for hospital partners and clients, what are the largest factors you consider?

Wang: We, as well as our network of physicians, focus on oncology. We work with both public and private hospitals, but mostly public hospitals. Right now we focus on partnering with prominent cancer doctors in the US who already have an interest in telemedicine.

GK: Why did you start out in Kunming? Why not a larger, more tech-savvy coastal city?

Wang: The reason we are located in Kunming is because our earliest hospital partner is here. Early last year we received funding from a venture capital firm. With this money, we then decided to expand to Shanghai. This turned out to be really useful because it connected us to expertise in first-tier cities. We also got to work with professionals in Beijing, and we are planning to expand to more locations in China soon.

GK: Where do you see Chinese healthcare now, and how do you see tech start-ups helping to address systematic challenges?

Wang: One challenge is the lack of physicians. It is important that people have access to good healthcare wherever they go. China has rural, county and provincial level hospitals. However, most people only go to 3A hospitals because all the best doctors are there. Even if you are from a small town and you get a cold, you still want to go to the best hospital available because the doctors at the local clinic are not necessarily very capable. Most people, even in rural areas, have access to a smartphone. Telemedicine has the potential to grant access to reliable physicians without traveling great distances. This is where we come in to expand the technological options.

The whole situation makes health in China a space that a lot of businesses are trying to change. But it is hard because health is dominated by the state. We are thinking of different ways to at least provide options. We know we can't change the way hospitals are run, but we can provide alternatives when people face very serious illnesses.

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Perhaps many Chinese have a particularly positive idea about US doctors, but wouldn't the whole operation be cheaper if doctors in numerous other countries were consulted? Anything medical in the US is not cheap.

Please tell us more about Claire herself.

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