|(Pic: genuine doctors from Wuhan)|
In many hospitals in China the “visiting specialist” all too often is a sham. The names and reputations of top specialists in areas such as dermatology and andrology are being hijacked by imitators – including many smaller regional public hospitals.
Leading specialists are complaining that their identities are being ‘borrowed’ by a wide variety of imitators and institutions, ranging from the blatantly fraudulent imposters to the deceptive and misleading government hospitals that wish to enhance their reputation and drawing power.
According to Xinhua, one Beijing dermatologist says he receives many letters of complaint every year from angry patients from all over China who he has never seen. They claim to have been treated by the dermatologist at one of his “visiting clinics” and say his treatments were worthless and demand their money back. Of course, the dermatologist has never conducted any such clinics outside of Beijing, and the patient has been duped by imitators who have stolen his identity. The dermatologist says that some imitators are quite blatant and his students have even seen the fake ‘him’ wearing a white coat and consulting patients at small clinics with his photograph displayed outside.
"China flooded with medical imposters"
The problem of medical identity theft is acknowledged by the Chinese Medical Association and also by skeptics such as Zhong Nanshan, who says the problem is widespread and that China is flooded with false doctors and false clinics. They have called for a crackdown medical fraudsters, but until now this has not had any effect on the problem.
The CMA says medical specialties such as andrology, infertility, obstetrics, gyanaecology and dermatology are the most popular targets for imitators. Andrologist Professor Lu Guo said his colleagues recently asked him why he was advertising clinics in the newspaper of a nearby city. He told them he had not placed any such adverts. He followed up and actually went to the clinic that was advertised and found a large queue of patients waiting to see the imposter, whom he challenged – but found he was powerless to do anything, as the man was an itinerant who quickly disappeared.
Another well-known medical specialist, Professor Li Furen, found that an imitator had taken out large newspaper advertisements for pills that included his photo and biography. When he complained to the newspaper and the company involved he found he was powerless because the company had trademarked his own name!
Three kinds of medical identity theft
Experts say there are three basic kinds of medical identity theft. The first is the straightforward imposter, who uses the photo and biography of a well known medical specialist to advertise ‘visiting clinics’, typically in a regional area where people are less well informed and likely to be impressed by a top specialist visiting from a major hospital. These imposters may or may not be genuine doctors, they put adverts in local papers and posters up at the local hospital or clinic. This kind of imposter is very common and difficult to stamp out. They often prescribe inappropriate or fake medicines and charge patients for unnecessary tests.
The second kind of medical identity theft is done by smaller public hospitals wanting to enhance their reputation. These hospitals search the internet for leading specialists and download their photos and details, which they post on their own website, claiming that the specialist is a “visiting professor” (although the doctor never visits). This attracts more patients to the hospital and also makes the hospital appear more authoritative to other doctors.
The third kind of reputation theft is when hospital managers and lesser-known doctors attend conferences and have their photo taken with a top specialist. They then display the photo prominently in their department, saying that this eminent doctor is a ‘consultant’ at the hospital.
Punishment is too light, no deterrent
The top specialists who are affected by this kind of identity theft say it causes harm to patients and themselves. Patients receive poor and inappropriate treatment and are often ripped off and overcharged for fake or substandard treatments. “It is like rubbing salt in the wound” says one doctor. Another uses the Chinese saying “Hanging up a sheep’s head and selling dogmeat”.
The other harm is to the reputation of the genuine doctor. Specialists whose identity is stolen say they are accused of fraud, malpractice and receive legal letters demanding compensation. However, there seem to be no effective action being taken against fraudsters, they say. Offenders found guilty of medical fraud can incur a fine of up to 10,000 yuan, they note – but for many of those involved these fines are rarely imposed and the actual fines are lower and prove little deterrent to this lucrative business.
The other problem is that offenders are often local government departments that control local hospitals, and there is reluctance among their local government colleagues in inspection departments to take action against them, in order to preserve harmonious relations.
Another reason for medical identity fraud to go unpunished is that most patients do not complain – they only do so if they suffer a major adverse event or become very sick. And with ‘visiting specialists’, many patients who are swindled do not know which relevant department to complain to.
Reforms will worsen the problem
One specialist, Lin Xiaobo is urging the public to be wary of medical swindlers and encouraging them to post details of ‘visiting medical experts’ on social media sites such as Weibo and WeChat to expose them. He also wants government departments and legal authorities to take stronger action and impose heavier fines on the fraudsters. However, he worries that the problem will become worse as the government health reforms encourage public hospital doctors to branch out into private clinics.
“As these private clinics proliferate, how will the public know whether the information about their doctors is genuine or not?” he asks.