As new policies shift the bulk of drug sales from hospitals to stand-alone drug stores that often lack trained pharmacists, Yao Xin aims to develop in-store assistants. Through a mobile application Yao Xin bombards in-store assistants with virtual customers suffering any number of woes. Players who probe with the most adept questions and administer the best advice to their virtual clients qualify for bonuses that range as high as four months' pay.
The field of drug store applications has drawn heavyweights and startups alike. Tencent and Alibaba, who are able to lure customers with discounts, are vying for market share alongside startups like Apricot Forest – a suite of applications linking doctors to patients, records, colleagues, drug information and new research. The government has poured billions into its own projects including a cloud hospital based in the eastern city of Ningbo and using remote technology to serve the entire country.
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Opportunity, however, can be ephemeral.
The combination of rapid change paired with increasing government oversight makes for a sector of perilous risk offset by rich rewards for startups with deep pockets, institutional knowledge and far-reaching networks.
"There is not a regulator system telling you what you can and can't do in mobile health and that makes the market a big mystery," said Damjan DeNoble, who heads Rubicon Strategy Groups China hospital practice. "You can dream up all of these ideas, but you could have the government say 'no.'"
Han and Lei, who also has a background in big pharma, believe they have the knowledge and networks to compete with the likes of Alibaba.
Today, some 80 percent of Chinese drug sales take place within hospitals, a situation that has bred corruption and made drugs hard to access for patients who live in rural areas or do not have the time for long hospital dispensary lines in urban areas.
However, there are not enough pharmacists to staff each of China's nearly half million freestanding pharmacies – Han and Lei estimate there are 100,000 pharmacists in China today, half of whom work for pharmaceutical companies. One pharmacist's photograph and credentials may appear in several stores. Doctors facing anywhere from 50 to 60 patients each day do not take time to explain the drugs they prescribe, leaving untrained store assistants as the only source of information available to customers.
Often that information is not very good. Assistants, who earn little more than $300 a month in big cities and much less outside, are paid by suppliers to promote certain products. When it comes to prescription drugs, they don't have the medical training necessary to advise on drug interactions and side effects. Yao Xin's video games challenge them to listen carefully for their customers' symptoms and to build knowledge about the products they sell, offering substantial cash prizes for those who learn the most.