LINE, Japan’s most popular messaging app with 80 million active monthly users, plans to launch a telemedicine business as early as this summer. This is according to the Nikkei newspaper. LINE plans to introduce a dedicated app that will allow doctors to remotely diagnose patients using the video call feature. The company estimates that more than 2,000 doctors nationwide will come on board in the initial phase. LINE is also considering creating a system for making electronic payments through its platform to hospitals and pharmacies.
Demand for online medical services is increasing in Japan due to the spread of the new coronavirus, and in the past month, the Japanese government has eased regulations regarding online medical care. LINE’s entry into the business is expected to give a substantial boost to popularizing telemedicine, as the company is able to leverage its massive base of active monthly users, equivalent to about 67% of the entire population of Japan.
LINE’s foray into telemedicine may be a game changer if the company can use its financial clout and user base to reduce costs for both patients and doctors. Currently, most of Japan’s online medical services are provided by start-up companies. Fees charged to doctors by these companies average tens of thousands of yen per visit. Patients pay on average hundreds of yen per visit. Most hospitals and pharmacies in Japan do not yet support electronic payment, so LINE is calling for medical facilities to introduce e-payment systems.
LINE plans to collect a service fee from users of its online medical care app by integrating it with its popular LINE Pay digital wallet app. Because LINE is such a big player with a built-in audience of people already using its messenger app, it is hoped that the familiarity of the LINE platform will make it easier to people to give telemedicine (and e-payment for medical services) a try.
Online medical care is covered by Japan’s national health insurance plan. With the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, the government has also quickly de-regulated telemedicine and now allows special cases (for example, first-time online consultation with a doctor) to be covered by national health insurance. However, under the existing system, both patients and medical institutions have to use the same platform to connect. Critics say that setting up of the required equipment has been both expensive and time-consuming, meaning that both doctors and patients have been reluctant to try online medical visits.
Source: Nikkei newspaper, May 20, 2020 (in Japanese)