Healthcare is one of the sectors most impacted by the coronavirus epidemic. To understand what this means, North Head conducted a perception survey of industry experts, pharmaceutical company executives, and industry associations—representing more than 40 organizations—to understand COVID-19’s impacts on China’s pharmaceutical innovation ecosystem.

Our findings paint a picture of a deeply affected sector, a fast-moving policy environment, and a restructured healthcare market that, as a result, will serve patients better and present many new opportunities to nimble innovators.

The epidemic catalyzed profound and positive changes in China’s top-down policy framework. Policy areas, especially public health and tiered diagnosis and treatment are receiving more focused government attention. However, the most dynamic changes are found in the area of digital healthcare, also referred to as internet+ healthcare in China.

It is clear that the internet+ healthcare market is now on an accelerated and sustained upward trajectory. The entire spectrum from disease prevention through diagnosis and treatment to post-treatment health management is growing strongly. This is true not only among the younger generation, who are more willing to embrace online services, but among senior citizens too, who especially appreciate the comfort and efficiency of virtual doctor’s visits.

In addition to patients, caregivers and medical professionals also draw great benefits from internet+ healthcare, from waiting times reduced by 70% to more efficient management of patient information and medical insights offered by big data. New government policies fully back this transformation.

In China, internet hospitals established by public hospitals will be more prominent than their counterparts initiated by third-party entities (such as private technology companies) due to policy support and patients’ longstanding preferences towards the public healthcare system. And this element of trust is a crucial factor in healthcare services.

One of the more traditional aspects of the online world is the ease of communicating and sharing both positive and negative experiences, which is tremendously useful in quickly eliminating any substandard services. This is one of the areas where patients’ needs and the way digital services transform healthcare quickly achieved outcomes superior to traditional models.

This trend is significant even in the area of clinical trials. Although coronavirus-related clinical trials were boosted at an unprecedented rate, all other trials were disrupted. This disruption to normal clinical trial workflows has sparked a new trend and potential model, where multicenter clinical trials will be favored and integrated with digital technology for patient recruitment, remote monitoring, quality assurance, and virtual trials.

China still has a long road ahead to achieve a fully functioning and integrated internet+ healthcare system. It is crucial for the government to make sure that the transition is accessible and affordable to everyone, including patients and providers. There is no question that the healthcare sector is rapidly changing—and for the better. Those aiming to remain successful in China must closely monitor and analyze these trends and tweak their business strategies to operate successfully in this new environment.

Robert Magyar is senior executive director at North Head.