Posted on May 16, 2016 by Rob McBroom
There's little doubt that medical care in China has been going through some drastic changes in the past few decades. This is evidenced by the inclusion of healthcare initiatives in almost all of the recent five-year plans, which have focused on increasing the number of care facilities - the number of hospitals in China grew from 18,393 in 2004, to 25,860 in 2014 - and the percentage of the population with insurance. One strategy China has employed to achieve this growth is by allowing private hospitals, which now, according to Deloitte, "account for almost half of China’s total number of facilities."
Despite this growth, there have been a number of concerns with existing care facilities that have subsequently led to concern over the quality of care available. In this article, we take a look at the most recent private health scandal in China and the impact it will have on care, and provide tips on how you can ensure that you receive the best health care possible in the country.
Looking at the recent private health scandal
In early May, numerous news sites picked up an article about a teen named Wei Zexi who passed away in April from a rare form of cancer. What caused the big stir was not cancer but the fact that Wei had received prohibitively expensive treatment from a popular military hospital in his home city.
Wei found the treatment by looking online using China's largest search Engine: Baidu. When he visited the medical center, doctors recommended a treatment that they said had seen great success and was developed in conjunction with a prestigious American university hospital. Only the treatment had little to no value and was actually not recommended by most western medical experts, including the American hospital that supposedly worked to develop the treatment.
At the same time, Wei's story made it to the mainstream media, Vice Media reported on a similar issue. The article found that several men in China's major cities had gone in for prostate exams only to be told that there was a medical concern where treatment was needed. Like Wei, these men turned to Baidu for help finding a center. Private hospitals advertising the best solutions and supposedly "top quality medical equipment" were first in the results. When they went in for care, doctors and staff (some of whom didn't even have medical licenses) essentially forced expensive treatments on the men, which resulted in bills in the thousands of US dollars and in some cases irreversible medical conditions.
Similarities between these situations
There are two similarities between the situations. First, treatment was carried out at private facilities. Wei received care from a military hospital while the men in Vice Media's report received care from private facilities. Generally speaking, the military hospitals in China are among the best when it comes to quality, however, reports about Wei's case found that these hospitals "are military hospitals on the one hand, but many of them have privatized some departments, especially those treating STDs, and cancer departments. Many of them have been sold out to private investors." It is these private investors who also own or invest in the vast majority of private hospitals in the country.
According to the Vice Media article linked above, "Businessmen from Putian, a city in Fujian Province, own most of China's private hospitals and clinics. Their interests are united by the Putian Health Industry Association (PHIA), which represents some 8,600 Putian-owned private hospitals, or about 70 percent of China's private hospitals." Many of these hospitals operate with minimal government oversight and for profit, which has led to some scary situations, including the use of machines that supposedly cure ailments but have had little to no actual medical testing, or simply won't work.
For example, the article notes that the writer looked at a machine that the manufacturer says cures "pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in 98 percent of patients without the use of antibiotics." Only to then note, "A professor of reproductive epidemiology in the US, however, pointed out that antibiotics… are used for the treatment of PID, as bacteria cause the disease."
The second similarity is that Wei and the men in both situations found their treatment providers after searching on Baidu. It was found that the private hospitals had been leveraging a loophole in Baidu's paid advertising offering that essentially allowed the hospitals to pay to have their results shown first. In fact, almost every result on the first page of some searches for medical treatment on Baidu were all paid ads from private hospitals.
When it comes to the Baidu issue, the Chinese government has taken swift steps. On May 9, Reuters reported that the Cyberspace Administration of China had posted new rules around health searches on the search engine. According to the article on Reuters, "The new rules mean the company must clean up in-search healthcare adverts and the positioning of paid-for search adverts of any kind cannot only be based on the highest bidder...The number of such adverts must also account for no more than 30 percent of a page of search results."
FULL DISCLAIMER: Pacific Prime China uses Baidu's paid ad service and is currently working with the company to ensure compliance set in place by the government is met, and our ads are clearly marked as ads.
How can you identify quality private health care?
This recent scandal has certainly not done anything to instill or increase confidence in the private health care industry in the country. That said, there are facilities and hospitals that still offer quality care and service, and there are a number of things you can do to ensure this. Here are five:
1. Conduct a search on more than one search engine
This may be tough for some in China, especially considering the world's largest search network - Google - is blocked. But, if you have access to a VPN, searching for a hospital or treatment can help bring up resources that may not be available via Chinese search engines.
Other search engines to try include Microsoft's Bing, and Yahoo. If you find a difference in what one engine is showing you, it would be worth seeking a number of different medical opinions or going to a specialist in the public/international hospital system.
2. Ask around
Your colleagues or neighbors, especially those who have been in China for a long time, could be a good source of information on what hospitals are the best for care. It could help to ask around and see if they have any recommendations or ideas on which doctors offer quality care.
3. Secure health insurance from a worldwide provider and use their provider network
All international health insurers have a network of recommended hospitals. This network is usually carefully cultivated, with insurers working closely with hospitals to ensure care is up to the insurer's and even international standards. For the vast majority of these facilities, care should be adequate.
On the plus side, if you have a plan with international coverage, you can seek care in other countries with more reliable systems like Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and even your home country.
4. Don't be afraid to get a second, or even third opinion
For any medical procedures, it is strongly suggested that you secure a second opinion on your diagnoses or suggested treatment. If more than one doctor from separate systems recommends the same treatment, then it is probably going to be more effective. Other doctors may even be aware of the equipment being used and be able to provide you with a recommendation on whether or not it is a generally accepted method of treatment.
The good news is that many international insurers actually will cover the cost of securing a second opinion and may even be able to help recommend doctors who can help.
5. Consult with Pacific Prime China
Finally, you could consult with the experts at Pacific Prime China. While we specialize in helping you find the best health insurance plan on the market, we also offer full service of your plan from start to finish. Our claims experts can help you find quality facilities and even advise you on facilities recommended by insurers.
To learn more about how we can help, visit our website today.