Sunday, 20 December 2015

Are China's doctors happy? A national survey of job satisfaction provides some unexpected results


China's doctors have a lot to be unhappy about. Low pay, long hours, medical disputes that trigger abuse and violence from the public - and daft regulations that force them to publish a quota of 'scientific articles'  every year even when they have no interest in research. 

There has been a lot of talk about poor morale among China's medical profession in recent years, but very little actual research to back these claims up. To address this, the medical online portal DXY conducted a survey in September 2015 that asked a simple question: "do you regret becoming a doctor?"

Responses were obtained from 2,356 doctors, three quarters of whom were male and most were working in tertiary (teaching) hospitals in eastern China (not surprising given that DXY is a medical portal used predominantly by younger and more online-savvy medics).

The survey found that overall almost half of doctors (1146) said they had regrets about becoming a doctor. There was no significant difference between male and female doctors, but there were some interesting trends by speciality and location.

Emergency department doctors had by far the lowest morale, with almost three quarters regretting their choice of career. This is perhaps not surprising as emergency doctors are at the sharp end, doing exhausting shifts dealing with trauma - and being assaulted by stressed out patients and their families with complaints.  Other specialities with poor morale included paediatrics (low pay, high stress when dealing with pushy parents of ailing Little Emperors), obstetrics and gynaecology and oncology.

The specialities with the highest degree of job satisfaction (or least worst morale if you're a glass half empty person) were radiology, TCM and anaesthestics.  The survey also showed that community clinic physicians  also had less regret about medicine as a career - the study authors say this is presumably because they see less sick patients and are more likely to have an ongoing doctor-patient relationship in the community.

Interestingly, doctors in teaching hospitals tended to have better job satisfaction - possibly because the top hospitals have better career prospects and are more professionally stimulating. The doctors in the middle tier hospitals - level 2 - had the worse morale.

Trainee doctors and senior doctors also tended to have better morale whereas mid-career doctors in their 30s and 40s had the worst morale.

On a geographic basis, doctors in the more remote provinces such as Yunnan, Gansu, and Shanxi reported better morale. The survey authors said this was an unexpected results and suggested that salaries were not as important as once thought in job satisfaction.

The study authors say they now plan to publish a more in-depth analysis of the reasons given by the doctors for poor morale.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Bigger than Ben Hur: relaxation of hukou system will provide healthcare for China's 270 million floating population

If the relaxation of hukou (residence permit) regulations announced by the State Council is actually enacted in practice, this will have a profound effect on healthcare access for a quarter of a billion Chinese.

This week the State Council announced that local governments were being instructed to adopt new regulations that will allow nonresidents to get a household registration. This registration will give the floating rural migrants access to basic public services such as education and healthcare, and family planning services. The changes could potentially affect 270 million internal migrants who have moved from rural areas or regional small towns to the larger and more prosperous cities of China. Until now this floating population has been denied access to healthcare facilities in the cities, leading to the development of many unofficial backstreet clinics. The main problem for migrant workers was that their hukou only entitled them to healthcare in their place of residence registration. This also applied to their children.

However, it pays to read the fine print - this does not mean that city hospitals will be immediately swamped by rural migrants seeking healthcare. The new regulations say that city governments should extend 'basic' services only to nonresidents who qualify for residence via a points test based on factors such as length of residence (as much as seven years) and stable employment. Many rural migrants will only qualify for temporary residence cards in the cities, which may limit their access to healthcare.

According to Xinhua, the State Council made the changes because "if these issues can not be effectively addressed in the long-term, it will trigger a series of social risks and contradictions."

However, some media commentators have been asking whether the legislation is premature because local governments are neither willing nor able to provide additional healthcare services to 'outsiders'

The other questions being asked in the Chinese media are: what are the criteria that will allow a nonresident to acquire city registration? Also, what level of services will the be eligible for? Another important question being posed by analysts is what kind of effect the widening of hukou system will have on current city residents? Will they be crowded out of hospitals and healthcare service by the onrush of outsiders?

One expert from the Renmin University, Beijing, also pointed to a potential problem with the loosening of the hukou system: the degrading of the funding base for rural health services. Professor Yang Junhua said many rural areas had already seen huge migration from the their towns and villages, depleting their tax revenue base, meaning they were unable to support services for the 'left behind' residents who tended to be either older and retired or young children. Allowing rural residents to switch their hukou to cities would further undermine the viability of rural healthcare services, he warned.

Professor Yang also predicted that there would be resistance on the ground from city governments to implementing the new regulations, and thus the central government would have to be strict in monitoring and enforcing the rollout of any hukou reforms.

Nevertheless, if fully implemented the new residency regulations are a 'game changing' step for China and have major implications for healthcare. The 'floating population' have long been neglected in terms of healthcare and many of the rural migrants in cities have poor healthcare as a result: unable to access health services they have missed out on basic services such as vaccination, leading to outbreaks of infections such as measles. The new residency rules could have more of an impact on China's healthcare system than the recent more widely publicised two child policy.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Shanghai hospitals to ban antibiotic infusions for coughs and colds

Not before time, some of the more advanced and enlightened provinces of China are to ban the widespread practice of giving patients antibiotic infusions for common colds.

Visit any emergency department or outpatient department in a major Chinese hospital and you will see row after row of patients hooked up to IV infusion lines. These are people who have coughs, cold and fevers and are given intravenous antibiotics as routine therapy. In most other countries this would be seen as an absurd, unscientific and harmful overtreatment, but in China it is the norm. There is an almost superstitious belief among Chinese people that an infusion is a panacea.

Many doctors have spoken out against the practice but until now hospitals and health authorities have done nothing to curb the practice. That may be all about to change. The Jiangsu health department has put hospitals on notice by saying that from 1 July 2016 infusions will no longer be permitted as routine therapy in outpatient departments of major hospitals (2nd and 3rd level). This will include city hospitals in cities such as Shanghai.

In a recent interview with People's Daily, Xuzhou Medical College Professor Wu Yunming said the most appropriate treatment for a cold was to take a simple antipyretic such as aspirin, rest and drink plenty of fluid.

"Sick people going to hospital for an infusion has become a long established bad habit, which is one of the important factors for antibiotic drug misuse," he said.

Professor Wu said it was a practice that must be stopped but it would require a change of thinking among the public as well as among the medical profession.

He said strict rules were needed to ban infusions because although doctors were aware that they were inappropriate, self regulation and guidelines had failed to curb their use. Professor Wu said it was typical for an outpatient department to have 200 patients in a morning having infusions - and not unknown for up to 700 patients a day receive such treatment. This was highly profitable for hospitals, which charged 100-200 per infusion, he said.

"Hospitals are businesses and infusions represent a significant source of revenue for them," he noted.

A reporter who visited a major hospital found that healthcare staff were sceptical about the planned ban. They say their was widespread patient expectation and demand for infusions, and if tertiary hospitals did not offer them then patients would simply go to smaller hospitals or local community health clinics that would still provide them.

Professor Wu said rational use of antibiotics was an important issue because antibiotic infusions could cause anaphylactic reactions, increase resistance and also cause other major side effects on the kidney and liver. Infusions also wasted a lot of workforce capacity and resources as nurses had to set up and monitor infusions. He said there needed to be a system-wide plan and implementation of the infusion ban, with an emphasis on social responsibility for hospitals and professional responsibility for doctors.

A spokesman for the Jiangsu department of health said it would be issuing a 'blacklist' of more than 50 medical conditions for which infusion was not permitted.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

China's pharma companies take a stake in public hospitals. What could possibly go wrong?

China's not-very communist health minister Li Bin wants to see hospitals turn to "social capital"(ie private investors). And it is slowly starting to happen. China's 'public' hospitals are currently in a strange place - they are essentially state-owned for-profit enterprises, but bound by an odd mix of rules and regulations that keep some prices in check and yet which allow rampant price gouging and overservicing in areas such as pharmaceuticals. Not for nothing are pharmacies know as the 'gold mine' of hospitals.

To try get rid of the obvious incentives for hospital doctors to overprescribe the government is currently phasing in a ban on drug commissions. They are trying to de-link income from drug sales and hospital revenue.

However it's not clear to me how this squares with the trend for China's pharmaceutical companies to go into partnership with hospitals, and essentially to become their operators. Take the recent deal by the Guangzhou Baiyunshan Pharmaceutical Group to invest in six hospitals in the obscure Shandong city of Jining. The joint venture covers six main hospitals with around 6000 beds and a total annual revenue of 2 billion yuan.

The local health department has 49% stake in the new Jining health provider company, while the pharma company has a 33% stake in return for 5 billion yuan investment. Other stakeholders include investment companies, with between 15% and 2% interests.

Analysts say the new joint venture will allow industrial groups to make profits from controlling supplies of pharmaceuticals as well as medical devices, supplies and equipment. I'm no health economist but I can't see how allowing a pharma company to own and operate all of a city's hospitals is good for the patient. Who decides which drugs are made available at the hospital - and what happens to the competitor products? Also what is to stop overservicing, as we have seen so evidently a problem in the current system?

As a commentator in Caixin magazine concludes:

"With deals like this we need to first be clear what is the purpose of the restructuring of public hospitals, and through the restructuring of what kind of results you want to achieve? These issues need further study and discussion. "

Monday, 30 November 2015

China is crazy for medical apps

The latest medical app craze in China is iBaby, developed by an entrepreneur from Harbin to provide antenatal, childbirth and childcare advice to Chinese women. The creator Lu Guotao featured on a recent Apprentice-style TV show on which he demonstrated how his app can link women up to advice via video and online help from obstetricians. Lu turned down offers from investors and went it alone to market the app, which he says now has tens of thousands of users in 31 provinces. Lu says he has had 10,000 obstetricians sign up to provide medical advice online via the app. The one stop platform for pregnancy advice also links women up with local clinics and offers links with merchandisers for pregnancy wares.

Lu says he was already a successful businessman when his wife became pregnant, but they were so busy attending to their work that she lost the baby through a miscarriage. Lu turned his grief into an energetic mission to help avoid such incidents again, by providing accessible information, advice and contacts for prospective parents.

He says the huge success of the app is not surprising given China's move towards relaxing the one child policy and also the opening up of the healthcare system to private investment and more flexibility in doctor roles.

The app has received backing from national obstetric experts including Professor Liu Xinghui, director of the West China Second Hospital, Sichuan University, Chengdu. Professor Liu offers weekly online lectures via the app. She says women can access a wide range of obstetric experience via the app.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Medical news from China: 7 stories that made the headlines this week

1. Nurses in Wuxi are being taught lessons in etiquette by air hostesses. The aim of the program is to make the nurses more customer focused and dispel their image as unfriendly.

2. Acute kidney injury is common in China with 700,000 deaths a year. Researchers from the Medical College of Nantong University found that acute renal impairment went undiagnosed in more than 70% of cases, and was often caused by patients taking nephrotoxic drugs or TCM.

3. A female neurologist in Wuhan is suing a woman for slander and damage to her reputation after the women mounted a four year campaign to blame her for her mother's death. Dr Mei Bin is suing the woman for 5000 yuan in compensation and apology after the woman spread false stories about her and claimed she was unqualified for her post. Dr Mei Bin said she had nothing to do with the care of the women's mother and the allegations against her were false, probably related to a doctor with a similar name in another province.

4. Researchers from Zhejiiang report a case of human to human transmission of H7N9 influenza in hospital from Feb 2015. Both men died, according to a report in the BMJ.

5. Health inequalities: hospital mortality rates are 40% higher in rural areas compared to the cities, a new study shows.

6. About 44% of Chinese women take Traditional Chinese Medicines during pregnancy, the most common being Angelica sinsensis (29%), Ziziphus jujuba (21%) and Dioscorea opposita (13%). Most women used TCM on the advice of their mother or mother-in-la, according to the survey of 700 women in Sichuan. The researchers warned that TCM may cause fatal hepatic and renal effects and some are adulterated with lead or pesticides.

7. A Beijing medical school has started a program to train more psychiatrists to help overcome China's widespread lack of mental health clinicians. The Beijing Huilongguan Hospital Clinical School of Peking University aims to help train several hundred psychiatrists over the next decade. China currently only has 20,000 psychiatrists and needs at least three times that number to match other countries.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Antibiotics in China: not quite there yet

Regular readers of this blog will know that antibiotic misuse is one of my real bugbears about medicine in China. Seeing rows of patients in emergency departments routinely hooked up to infusions of broad spectrum antibiotics for fevers is a symbol of everything that is wrong with healthcare in the PRC.

Well it seems that I'm in good company in deploring this unwelcome practice. As part of Antibiotic Resistance Awareness Week, the World Health Organisation has taken China to task for its misuse of antibiotics. In a new global report it singles out China for having particularly poor usage and knowledge of antibacterials. A survey reveals that more than 60% of Chinese think, incorrectly, that colds and flu can be treated by antibiotics. A similar proportion have used antibiotics in the past few months and one in four bought them over the counter rather than obtain them on prescription. And while 67% were aware of the term ‘antibiotic resistance, few realised that cutting down on antibiotic use was the way to tackle it.

The WHO states that China is one of the worst offenders for antibiotic misuse and blames the lack of awareness among the citizenry for this problem. For a country that prides itself on such a good education system, how can Chinese be so badly informed about such an important matter?

The head of the pharmacy department at the Beijing Union Medical College Hospital, Zhang Jichun, says many Chinese demand antibiotics as a "quick fix". At the hospital if doctors say that antibiotics are inappropriate for patients with a fever or a cough they are rebuked with: "my illness so bad, why don't you give me an infusion for it?" Doctors say patients accuse them of not taking their illness seriously and demand "give me an infusion quickly so I will recover quickly and can get back to work!"

The WHO says it hopes the new report will raise awareness about antibiotic overuse and the risk of resistance in China. I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Top 10 hospitals in China


I'm not a big fan of top 10 lists, and I would approach this one for hospitals in China with caution. The China 2014 Good Hospital Ranking is produced by the Fudan University Institute of Hospital Management.

I'm not quite sure what criteria they use to decide what makes a good hospital but they claim it is based on factors such as clinical competence, scientific research and academic rigour. How they measure that objectively is anyone's guess. The Fudan team also say they consulted many 'national experts' to rank the country's top hospitals. They say the rankings are a good guide to clinical excellence and should be a benchmark that other hospitals strive for.

I don't think anyone is going to see any surprises in the list - all the top hospitals are the 'usual suspects' in the major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and Guangzhou. I'm also not sure what the point of league tables for hospitals is - if you asked me to name the top 10 hospitals in Australia I could tell you quite easily without having to do a ton of homework - just based on location and whether they are teaching hospitals with a good research culture.

The rankings actually extend to 100 top hospitals, but I've only listed the top 10 here for brevity. I'm also not sure what the point of doing these survey on an annual basis is - it's not as if hospitals will move up and down the list very much and whether that is significant anyway. Any doctor will tell you that some good hospitals can have very bad departments and vice versa - some hospitals have a good reputation in certain specialities and can be terrible for others. Much of it is down to personalities and medical politics. I can also think of some 'good' hospitals that are over-rated and charge exhorbitant fees based on their reputation and "closed shop" monopoly status.

But what do I know. Here's the list:

  1. Beijing Union Medical College Hospital
  2. Sichuan University, West China Hospital
  3. People's Liberation Army General Hospital (aka 301 Hospital, Beijing)
  4. Shanghai Jiaotong University Affiliated Ruijin Hospital
  5. Xijing Hospital (No 4 Military Hospital) Xian
  6. Zhongshan Hospital, Fudan University, Shanghai
  7. Huashan Hospital, Fudan University, Shanghai
  8. Zhongshan Hospital, Guangzhou (First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-sen Univeristy)
  9. Tongji Medical College Hospital, Shanghai (Huazhong University of Science and Technology)
  10. Peking University First Hospital

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Dodgy hospital uses call centres to lure bumpkin victims

A backstreet private clinic in Beijing is using call centre staff posing as doctors to lure unsuspecting victims to have expensive and often unnecessary medical procedures. In an expose, a Beijing Times reporter spoke to call centre staff for the Beijing Sande Weiye (三德伟业) clinic, who described their high-pressure sales tactics to bring patients in for high tech and often unproven treatments such as 'stem cell' technology for arthritis.

The call centre staff said they were given a script and a template to respond to phone inquiries coming from people who had been deceived by fake websites and Baidu advertisements that claimed their 'hospital' was affiliated with prestigious major hospitals in the capital. When answering calls, the sales staff said they were doctors but in reality they were unqualified and just ran through a script whose aim was to convince callers that they could jump the queue and get access to top specialists at the city hospitals. Most of the callers tended to be gullible out-of-towners who were seeking treatment in the capital rather than rely on the more basic and underfunded rural hospitals.

Sales staff told the reporter that they were pressured to get the caller's mobile, after which they would make a series of promises and phone calls to establish a relationship with the prospective customer. They were paid on commission: 2 yuan for getting a call, 20 yuan for getting a registration (ie phone number and verbal contract) with the 'network' and 60 yuan for a hospital visit. The sales person also got a cut of the treatment fees and drug fees. A successful telesales operator could make 5000 yuan in this way. The treatments offered were often high technology - such as joint replacement - and were offered regardless of whether they were really appropriate for that patient.

When the reporter visited the 'hospital' he found it to be just a standard clinic with unscrupulous doctors offering treatments that were much higher in price than the same treatment in public hospitals. A knee replacement, for example was priced at 60,000 yuan.

When the reporter informed the top three hospitals that their name (and reputation) was being hijacked to promote a bogus clinic they said they did not have the staff or resources to chase up the many such cases they heard about from complaints. They suggested the fraud be reported to the Public Security Bureau, but the PSB said they would only follow up complaint from people who had been swindled and who had evidence to show criminal behaviour. They instead suggested that the reporter called the consumer affairs bureau.

The Beijing Industry and Commerce Bureau  told reporters that any company making false propaganda, should be reported to the bureau's hotline and would be investigated, with fines and business license suspensions for offenders..

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Doctors tempted by offers from private hospitals

As China tries to develop its private healthcare sector, some doctors are contemplating a move from their high workload, low paid public hospital positions to the private sector. One Shanghai obstetrician with 10 years' experience was interviewed by Caijing and said he was tempted to make the move to the widening private sector, but not for financial reasons. He said he could already earn 300,000Y (US$47,000) a year in the public hospital, counting bonuses, which was comparable to the private hospital salary. What attracted him to private work was the lower workload and the opportunity to have more patient continuity.

"In public hospitals every day you need to see hundreds of patients, and you have no energy left to do academic work, research and innovative practice. In the private hospitals there is reduced patient throughput and often the patient will follow you from start to finish - and this is a more valuable medical experience," said Dr Liu. "None of my friends who have switched to a private hospital have shown any regrets," he added.

Another reason for moving into the private sector is independence, say doctors. One said that private hospitals offered more clinical and financial autonomy than a public hospital where you worked under the authority of a 'big medical leader' and were also subject to the rigid career path and control of hospital management. In a private hospital there was more opportunity to select your patients, treatments and also have an equity stake in the business, he said.

However the doctor noted that there was less job security and often questionable quality of care and backup in private hospitals compared to the public system. He noted a clear divide between domestic and foreign-funded private hospitals. Foreign joint ventures tended to have little interaction with public hospitals as the quality of care was generally good. However he saw many 'referrals' of patients from private hospitals where patients had not been properly assessed or had spent tens of thousands of yuan for minor ailments. Most of the doctors in the tertiary public hospitals would opt for foreign-invested hospitals, he suggested.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Plans for online pharmacies hit a roadblock in China


It was pitched as the great disrupter of the Chinese healthcare system: online sales of prescription drugs would reduce distribution costs, improve efficiency of the supply chain of medicines and be great for consumer choice, convenience and affordability. Unfortunately, despite a lot of official hot air, nothing has actually happened.

In May 2014 the Ministry of Commerce released a draft plan to 'open up' the pharmaceutical market to allow online sales. But since then there has been nothing heard from official sources about when and how online sales of prescription drugs will be permitted. While some of the big players such as Alibaba are positioning themselves to be online pharmaceutical vendors, it is still just talk: selling drug online is still illegal and insiders say the government is now dragging its feet on plan to open up the market. The pressure is coming from vested interests in the pharmaceutical industry and also from the powerful hospital lobby.

According to the Commerce Department, online sales of drugs are growing at a phenomenal rate. They say revenue has increased 50% in the last year and there are now 425 companies competing to sell pharmaceuticals online in a 4 billion yuan market. However, at present only non-prescription drugs can be sold online - that market is worth 200 billion yuan and only 2% of it is online. The much bigger market - the 800 million yuan prescription drug market - is still out of bounds. Analysts predict that up to 30% of drugs sales could move online - so there are huge stakes involved for those who win and lose on online pharmaceuticals.

According to Caixin magazine, plans for online sales of pharmaceutical are being opposed by those who say government-run hospitals will lose one of their main sources of revenue if this goes ahead. The China Pharmaceutical Association warns that prescription drugs must be dispensed under the supervision of a pharmacist to ensure quality of the product and also to ensure that it is going i the right for to the right patient.There is no guarantee that this will happen online, they say. They also point to the fact that online purchases of drugs will not qualify for heath insurance rebates - a crucial factor for most patients, who expect to get some or all of the cost of their medications reimbursed by their health insurance.

Hospital-based pharmacists have also attacked the proposals for having little real-world benefit. They say there is no clear evidence for the benefit of online sales of drugs from a clinical perspective. Are online sales of drugs being promoted to improve patient's health, or just as a trend or a money-making venture, they ask. They have called for a responsible "opening up" policy towards online pharmaceuticals from the government.

In the meantime, it seems China has stalled on the issue of online pharmacies.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Uber Doctor? China's version of the taxi app just launched a home doctor visit service.

The company that runs China's answer to the Uber app - DiDi, has just launched a home doctor service, called DiDi Doctor. 
A pilot program of the doctor-hailing app is being run out in four cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing. The services promotes itself as offering a renowned surgeon for private consultations. In its first few days it got 20,000 calls - but only treated 40 patients. The service is being run in cooperation with Ali Health, and is currently being offered for free - for those who can get through. However, feedback on the service has been mixed, with consumers doubting the experience of the doctors involved, and questioning whether they are even entitled to treat patients outside of hospital.

A pregnant woman called Chen who used the service in Shanghai, said she thought it would offer a way to avoid the long waits at the tertiary hospital. However she found that the doctor dispatched was a cardiologist with no experience in obstetrics and gynaecology. The doctor also told her that he was only allowed to give general advice and could not write prescriptions for pharmaceuticals - only minor medications and supplements. It seems the DiDi Doctor staff are on secondment from private hospitals, but they do not have authority to practice medicine beyond their registered place of work. Users also questioned the calibre of he doctors involved, saying that good doctors were already in high demand, seeing 30+ patients in a morning - why would they spend a day driving round seeing only four or five patients. Users also questioned the business model, saying they would pay about 200-300 yuan to see a doctor in a public hospital - how much will DiDi Doctor charge when the service is beyond the test stage?

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Inequality in China healthcare - fixing it isn't easy

The Chinese government acknowledges that serious inequalities exist in the country's healthcare provision - rural areas are seriously under-serviced compared to the cities. 

More than a decade ago the government announced a grand plan to try address some of these inequalities - by sharing the expertise of big city hospitals with rural areas. The plan was for medical personnel from tertiary hospitals in prosperous eastern China to spend time in placements and long-term exchanges in disadvantaged rural hospitals and clinics in poorer parts of western China.

However, the so-called "Myriad Doctors Supporting Rural Health Care Project" has not been a complete success (to put it mildly), according to a letter in the Lancet this month from Dr Wang Tao of the Shanghai Jiaotong University Sixth Affiliated Hospital.

After touring western districts to see the progress of the project in its 10th year, Dr Wang found that it had helped bring medical personnel and technology to some poorer areas. However, the project was also under-resourced for such a major undertaking. Lack of funding meant that hospitals struggled to pay their seconded medical workers an adequate wage. The transfer of five senior doctors from each supporting [eastern China] hospital to a disadvantaged hospital on six-month shifts also proved impractical.

"These long-term arrangements create a huge burden for hospitals in eastern provinces and can cause personal difficulties for medical staff," he writes.

Another problem was that medical resources were allocated by government bureaucrats rather than determined by need.

"Coordinating this huge project that involves thousands of hospitals and medical workers according to strict policy guidelines is extremely tough, and inefficiencies and repetitive allocation of resources inevitably arise," says Dr Wang.

The project has not done much to address inequalities in healthcare, he reports. Latest figures show that eastern China areas have average annual healthcare funding levels of 1067 yuan per person, whereas in western China hospitals have only half that level of resources (about 500 yuan per person). Inequalities also exist in the numbers of hospitals, doctors, nurses and beds between eastern and western China.

"Healthcare inequalities remain a serious problem and necessitate support projects for the foreseeable future," Dr Wang suggests.

He asks whether market forces could succeed by encouraging hospitals in eastern provinces to open public or private amenities in the western provinces.

"New sources of income might provide sufficient motivation to create efficient, high-quality services. The fear is that new sources of income might cause new problems, counteracting the government's attempts to reduce inequality. Nevertheless, the consistent provision of an excellent level of health care in China, particularly in less developed areas, still has a long way to go."

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Why is there so much violence against doctors in China?

As I've said many times on this site, the level of violence against medical staff in China is extraordinary. In one province, Guangdong, there were 25,000 recorded incidents last year alone. Many reasons have been put forward by academics and politicians to explain the epidemic of violence - but there has been little actual study of the contributing factors. Now researchers have interviewed patients and medical staff in seven Guangdong hospitals to get some feedback from the grassroots.

The results of the survey are published in the BMJ this month and one theme emerges: mistrust.

The survey found that there was widespread mistrust of doctors and healthcare staff by the public, based on well-grounded beliefs that there was widespread injustice and commercial bias in the Chinese healthcare system. Patients believed that decisions on their treatment were based more on hospital revenue than need, while at the same feeling resentment that they had to wait for hours to see a doctor for just a few minutes. Costs and financial injustice were a major source of anger: people cited examples of patients being refused treatment - or having treatment terminated due to inability to pay fees.

Doctors also believed there were major injustices in the healthcare system - saying their workloads were far too high and the salaries did not reflect their years of training, long hours and high pressure. They also said that they did not trust patients to behave in a civilised manner, with many being demanding or suspicious.

Patients had little trust in the official dispute resolution systems. They believed that hospitals and law courts were unlikely to give time or serious attention to patient complaints and felt there was little chance of redress for any deficiencies or mistakes. For this reason, patients said they would be more likely to get a result - an apology and compensation - if they used physical and verbal threats, disruption of the hospital and violence to gain attention.

The survey also heard from doctors that their training had not prepared the for communicating with patients or having a good bedside manner.

Both patients and physicians were critical of the government's response to rising violence - namely increasing levels of security guards at hospitals. They said this just inflamed the situation, creating a siege them-and-us mentality and did little to address sudden violent assaults on staff.

The researchers - including several China-based doctors - are openly scathing about the policy response from Xi Jnping and his administration.

"The moral crisis that our study revealed in Chinese healthcare demands a legal and regulatory response as well as a moral one. The Chinese phrase “zhibiao bu zhiben” means treating the symptoms and not the disease. Cracking down on violence and enhancing security measures are unlikely to fundamentally alter patient–physician mistrust and may inadvertently undermine trust."

They put forward three policy suggestions to tackle the climate of mistrust that is driving the violence in healthcare. Firstly they say hospital 'commissions' and incentives to staff for overservicing must be abolished and financial conflicts of interest must be addressed.

Second, doctors and hospital staff need better training in communication, ethics, professionalism and dispute resolution. Finally, there needs to be an atmosphere of trust in which the public are willing to negotiate and seek non-violent solutions, while doctors must be willing to apologise to patient families and accept reasonable consequences for medical error. st.

Similar findings were made in a separate study of junior doctors in three Nanjing hospitals recently. The study found that junior doctors felt extremely frustrated at having studied for up to a decade but having only a lowly job title and poor pay. The doctors said they worked extremely long hours and had high pressure in their work, but also faced poor prospect for promotion or increasing their income. The other main finding was that most junior doctors had experience of abuse and violence from the public, and this was a major contributor to poor quality of life.

"Although Chinese doctors feel relatively unsafe, the phenomenon does not raise sufficient concern from hospital managers . These violent events negatively affect medical workers; for instance, these workers may develop guilt and self-doubt, and such outcomes can reduce the quality of services," the study authors note.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Hospitals heed Xi Jinping's call to make use of "social capital", then rip off investors

One of the cornerstones of Xi Jinping's healthcare reforms is the urging of public hospitals to take advantage of "social capital" (ie private investors) for future expansion and development.

Unfortunately, in China's murky and non-transparent climate of investment, things are quickly going wrong in predictable ways. A hospital in Jiangsu now owes its mom and pop investor almost a billion yuan, according to reports in the People's Daily. The Workers Hospital of Suqian asked locals and employees to put their capital into the hospital's investment fund and promised regular interest and dividend payments.

In 2012, a man called Chen heeded the call to invest in the Suqian hospital to help fund the building of a new hospital and to further develop and expand medical services. The hospital guaranteed a fixed income and this was backed by the local government. Mr Chen put in his 2 million yuan retirement savings and was initially  pleased with the interest payments he received on a regular monthly basis. In fact, Mr Chen was so impressed he persuaded his family and friends to invest their money in the hospital as well. In addition, local TV advertising that was aired to promote the fund resulted in more than 2000 small time investors putting close to 900 million yuan into the Worker's Hospital Investment Fund. However, things started to go wrong in April this year when the hospital defaulted on its interest payments. Investors who asked why they hadn't received their usual payments were fobbed off with non-commital replies.

However, as public complaints and protests increased, the local police and authorities have opened a financial investigation into the missing monies. So far they have found that there is not enough money to pay the interest and also not enough to repay the principal sums that were invested and which most investors are now demanding be repaid.

Several of the hospital financial managers have been detained for further investigation and the local authorities say they are now tracking a number of unauthorised financial investments. It looks very much like the Suqian people have had their social capital blown on the roller coaster Chinese stock market that crashed so spectacularly this year.

Putian cartel?

Meanwhile, China's private hospital market has started to take off in a big way with more than 8000 hospitals and clinics in the loose "Putian Network" forming an procurement alliance. The Putian hospitals network is a loose association of healthcare establishments set up from the 1980s onwards by entrepreneurial families from the Fujian town of the same name. Although suffering from a poor reputation for marketing of dodgy services such as fertility clinics and cosmetic centres, many of the Putian hospitals are trying to transition into more respectable establishments. Several of the hospitals have formed groupings and sought investors through IPOs. Now the Putian group hospitals say they are seeking to consolidate and form buyer's groups to give themselves greater purchasing clout. However, Putian hospital are still suffering from a credibility after being banned from Baidu for their dodgy advertising claims.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Having a break

No posting until the end of September: I'm cycling in Heilongjiang and Russia.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Science Communication in China

On this blog you'll often see me harking on about the lack of health literacy among otherwise well educated Chinese people. The media in the west are always looking enviously at China's education system for the high marks in subjects such as maths and science. How is it, then, that Chinese people have such backward views on scientific matters such as antibiotic overuse and resistance? Is there no equivalent of Mythbusters in China?

One factor in the lack of scientific literacy in China is the poor level of science communication. There is little real popularisation of science in China, and few science communicators in the public eye. The reasons for this are well illustrated in an excellent - if somewhat academic - article in the journal Public Understanding of Science this week. Written by Zhang Yueyue (currently at the University of Kent, UK), the article entitled "The Credibility Paradox" explores why China's scientists don't connect with the public - and why the public don't listen to them.

The basic answer is that like many things in China, science is heavily politicised and a no-go area for individuals who are not officially approved. Zhang says that what little science communication there is in China is a "top down" process and is mostly concerned with policy. Science has long been seen as an instrument of Party policy in China, and its role is to serve politics. There is no popular participation in science debate, and no debate or discussion about science beyond the most basic principles.

In the west, we are used to seeing science communicators in the media who are independent and who express their own views and theories about scientific matters. Science communicators are often sceptics and are ready to challenge the official line - whether it be government, business interests or popular misconceptions and quackery. In China, it is a very different situation. Commentary on scientific matters is the preserve of a few "Big Experts" who have official blessing. There is little or no role for grassroots or frontline workers in science fields such as the biomedical sphere. There is no tradition of independent or dissenting thought in science, and there is little willingness among scientists to come forward and engage the public to popularise science.

And because science is seen by the public as being part of the political process, there is little trust or interest in what science commentators say. The top-down official model of science communication has little credibility with the ordinary Chinese citizen - they are alienated from science and there is no engagement.

This lack of interaction is a two-way process. Zhang's journal review describes the feedback she got from nine biomedical scientists who were interviewed abut their views on science communication. Most said they had little interest or willingness to get involved in public discourse or engagement around science. They did not see it as their role and would not want to take on the role.

When asked why, the scientists said they did not want to get involved in politics or become labelled as "stirring up trouble" by starting a public debate. Most scientists also said they were not qualified or entitled to talk about science in any official capacity as they were not "Big Experts" only "frontline workers". They would not comment about science in online forums or by writing articles because this would bring pressure from their institutions and have an adverse effect on their careers, they said.

Another reason that scientists cited for not getting involved in science communication was that experience showed them that nobody paid attention to what they had to say. They remarked that there were few good outlets or forums for science communication, and they were kept "out of the loop" by leaders and managers on science policy, so there was little point in discussing it anyway.

Interestingly, many scientists said they did not want to be associated with official science communication because they believed that science spokespeople had little credibility: "Nobody would listen to you or believe you" was one comment made.

However, the scientists said they did love talking about their work and explaining their scientific methods on an individual basis in informal situations. In other words, they were happy to be science communicators so long as they did not have their official hat on.

Ultimately, the lack of science communication means there is little understanding of science and thus poor science literacy in China, the scientists concluded.

In practical terms, this means that when biomedical scientists in China comment publicly about health and medical matters they are seen as having little credibility, and are viewed as simply spouting the "official line" or propaganda - and not to be trusted. And even when they are believed, their views and outlook are often not understood or given much attention.

This may explain why China's healthcare system is often dominated by unscientific practices - and why China's "medical experts" have little credibility in the public eye.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

High Noon for dodgy drug trials: China cracks down (again) on pharmaceutical data fraud

Eight years ago, the Chinese government took a rather drastic step to clean up fraud and corruption in its drug regulator - it shot the director of the State Food and Drug Administration. However, this has  now been shown to be just another example of the uselessness of capital punishment as a deterrent, because the Chinese government has now announced ANOTHER crackdown on pharmaceutical drug registration fraud.

Although not spelling it out as such, the Chinese ministry of health has basically admitted that there has been ongoing and widespread clinical trial fraud since 2008. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the succesors to the hapless Zheng Xiaoyu (above).

Despite efforts to correct the situation, the new director of the China FDA, Bi Jingquan (in office since 2015) has announced that the problems of clinical trial fraud have not been fixed. On 22 July he issued proclamation 117, which states that the China FDA is to review the registration applications for more than 1600 drugs, to verify the data as genuine. In a sign of how bad things are, the China FDA has described this as a "last chance amnesty" for all the naughty companies who have submitted false data to come clean. Leniency for those who confess ... and for those who don't - three years exiled in the wilderness. Yes, the China FDA is going to blacklist the drugs and companies that are found to have acted fraudulently - if they don't put their hands up and admit to it. They will be banned from re-submitting any drug registration applications for at least three years.

Not surprisingly, the pharmaceutical industry is not happy with this situation. In fact, they are shitting bricks and calling it "7-22" - the industry's play on 9-11. They know the government means business this time because of what happened to GSK - the Anglo-US company was fined a whopping 3 billion yuan ($489 million) for dodgy goings on within its sales force.

But to be fair on Big Pharma, it's not all their fault. The real villains are the so-called Clinical Research Organisations (CROs), which are agencies that actually do most of the local clinical trial work on behalf of the pharma companies. According to Caixin magazine, industry insiders acknowledge that the CRO sector in China is riven by fraud and corruption. Pharma companies pay the CROs to obtain the clinical trial data for China and submit it to the regulators. However, it's an open secret that the trials allegedly run in China's hospitals have been fixed or faked,  and the regulators bribed or blindsided.

To use the words of a regulatory agency insider, "the chaos has not been effectively curbed" since 2008 and therefore the CROs are being invited to undergo a period of "self examination" and verification of their results. The China FDA is tearing up its 2001 guidelines for drug registration and is starting afresh with more rigorous rules. The CROs have a chance to correct their irregularities or will be banished for three years. It is hope the shake-up will clean out what it currently a rotten and severely compromised sector - but this remains to be seen.

The last word goes to an insider at a reputable company - he says the short term effect may well be a kick up the arse for the CROs and the pharma industry, but old habits die hard. He says the only way to achieve positive long term change is to overhaul the management of CROs and pharma companies - and build expertise based on technical and scientific ability, not an ability to bend the rules

My article in the BMJ on the medical response to the Tianjin blast

China’s health authorities have activated disaster response plans to send in medical teams to help treat hundreds of casualties from the massive Tianjin chemical explosion on Wednesday 12 August.
Official reports have said that at least 112 people were killed, 95 were missing, and 722 were admitted to hospital for treatment of injuries from the blast, which destroyed a wide area around a container storage area in the northeastern port city of Tianjin.
Many of the dead and wounded people were firefighters sent to tackle the blaze that triggered the huge explosion at around midnight on 12 August.
Doctors treating casualties at the nearby Taida Hospital said that most of the injuries were blast injuries such as burns and fractures, although hundreds of nearby residents were also … 
Read the rest at BMJ 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Medical school places unfilled: nobody in China wants to be a doctor, and there are three good reasons why they don't

In western countries there is fierce competition to get a place in medical school. Only straight A students with an impressive portfolio of extra-curricular activities need apply. In China, the picture is very different. Even the top medical schools in China are struggling to attract students.

This week, Professor Yang Jun a distinguished cardiologist and head of the First College of Clinical Medical Sciences, Hubei, notes that Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University has had to drop its entrance mark threshold by 58 marks this year. The same "dumbing down" has been seen at the city's Jiatong University medical school and other medical schools across the country. When China's top medical school at  Peking Union Medical College allotted 10 places to Guangzhou students, only four applications were received - and of these only one was deemed to make the grade.

What's happening? The fact is, nobody with any ambition wants to be a doctor in China right now, and you can see why. The three main reasons are poor pay, long hours and terrible working conditions - including the real possibility of abuse and violence.

Writing in the International Journal of Cardiology, Professor Yang notes that the average salary of a doctor in China is 72,000 yuan a year (US$11,600) -  and many doctors earn a lot less than that, especially if they work in unpopular specialities such as paediatrics or emergency medicine (the so-called ambulance riders).

Poor pay for doctors in China: paediatricians are at the bottom, with only 63,000 yuan a year
For this salary, doctors have to work long hours - more than 50% of doctors work more than the 'specified' 40 hours a week and 30% work more than 60 hours a week.  Doctors also face huge workloads - as many as 80 patients in a single morning shift. As Professor Yang observes, the Mayo Clinic in the US has fifteen times more staff than the Peking Union Medical College, and yet it has only half the patient numbers.

Doctors in China simply don't have time to practice adequate medicine - and the consequences are unhappy patients who take out their frustration on staff. A recent survey of almost 10,000 doctors found that 60% had recently experienced abuse from patients, and 13% had experienced physical assaults.

Doctors also have to study long and hard to qualify - up to ten years including undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications. On top of this they have to publish articles and to gain academic merit for promotion.  Doctors have lost the status and respect they once had - and only 6.8% of doctors say they would advise their children to follow  a career in medicine.

This is already causing problems in the less popular branches of the profession. On 27 July, the National Health and Family Planning Commission announced that it would be waiving the usual entry criteria for admission to the specialities of paediatrics and emergency medicine. Medical student candidates who did not achieve the usual pass mark would be allowed to become trainee paediatricians and emergency medicine doctors if their coursework was of sufficiently high standard, the NHFPC announced. This has caused outrage among  doctors currently working in these specialities, who say it is a desperate and self -defeating move that will further reduce the attractiveness of their branches of medicine.

They say there is a need to improve pay and conditions in their work rather than lowering the bar to entry. Paediatrics and emergency medicine and notoriously poorly remunerated and yet high pressure jobs in the Chinese healthcare system. Assaults on doctors in these departments are numerous as they are in the front line seeing critically ill patients - especially the treasured offspring in a one-child system.

The doctor's social network site DXY echoed many of the criticisms of the "dumbing down" move. As one doctor wrote: "We work longer hours for less pay in unsafe conditions, but we stick to our posts because of the duty we have to the little ones who thank us after we have care for them."

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The medical appointment "add-on" phenomenon - why China's doctors see far more patients than are booked to see them


A fascinating article run by Xinhua this week describes the so-called "add-on" (加号) system in which doctors squeeze in far more patients than are registered to see them. The official reason for this practice is that doctors often feel sympathy for ailing out-of-towner patient who cannot get a booking to see them that day. However, as the article reveals, the add-on patients are often more to do with doctors making informal arrangements seeing patients with guangxi (connections) or to see patients who have bought their booking slips from ticket scalpers.

To understand the add-on phenomenon you first have to understand how China's medical appointment system works. To see a doctor in China you have to 'register' (gua hao, 挂号) at the front desk of the hospital before you can get to wait at the clinic And with demand for doctor appointments far outstripping supply, this means patients have to queue very early (often overnight) and for a long time to get one of the limited slots available to see a doctor in their chosen department. There are two kinds of bookings: general and specialists.

Typically, a doctor in a  hospital outpatient clinic will work a morning shift from 8am to 1pm. Assuming that he or she works five hours without a break and sees patients for an average of five minutes (far too brief for an adequate consultation), the doctor could be expected to see 12 patients an hour - or 60 patients per shift. However, some doctors are seeing 50% or even 100% more patients per day than their official limit. Why so?

The Xinhua reporter describes the situation in the Chaoyang Hospital dermatology department, where he sees an impoverished family of 'waidiren' (out of towners) sitting with their ailing grandfather in the waiting room late in the afternoon. They are surrounded by their travel luggage and are telling the clerk that they have come from a remote town in a nearby province especially to see the doctor. At 6pm it is time for the doctors to finish their shift, but the doctor agrees to see the old man without a booking as a jia hao (add on).  The patient is given a ticket with the doctor's signature and the clinic chop, and his family are able to take this to the registration desk to get an official registration slip to see the doctor.

The doctor later explains to the reporter that because of his conscience he feels unable to turn away the desperate family who have been waiting there all day. However, he says he nevertheless feels guilty because his 'extended shift' also means that others have to stay behind - the nurses, clerks, pharmacists and security staff.

The doctor says that all departments have 'add-on' patients, some more than others, and each clinic and each doctor has a different policy about how to deal with them. Some doctors and clinics refuse to have 'add-on' patients, even putting up signs saying they are banned, while others reluctantly agree to see some of the more pitiful cases - the elderly and the seriously ill. Some clinics even leave spare room for add-ons and the doctors try to 'triage' their add-on patients to sort out the most deserving and to weed out the tricksters, malingerers and the ones who have paid for their registration.

The situation is complicated because not all 'add-on' patients are genuine. Some are simply putting on an act because they could not or would not wait in line to get a registration ticket. The doctor describes one woman who came to the waiting room with a wheeled suitcase, lamenting that she had  got off the train from a distant town and needed to see the big city specialist. However, an eagle-eyed nurse noted that the woman's suitcase was very light and obviously empty.

The other big problem with add-on patients is that they are exploited by the thriving trade in add-on appointments by scalpers known as 'hao fanzi' (号贩子).  These are the 'black hand' middle men who hang around the hospital lobby pretending to be patients and getting registration tickets which they then sell on illicitly to  patients who have missed out or don't want to line up early in the morning. To combat this, hospitals have introduced a system of ID checks, with registration tickets only valid for the person who has booked them. If the scalpers are unable to get registration tickets directly from the lobby office, they instead try to get bookings by posing as add-on patients. According to Xinhua, the going rate for a scalper-obtained place to see a doctor is 200 yuan for a general appointment and 300 yuan for a specialist booking.

One doctor told the reporter that the fake scalper 'patients' were often convincing or persuasive and he felt too tired at the end of a long day to try work out if an add on patient was genuine or not. The scalpers also cause annoyance to Beijing residents. One local 70 year old man waiting in the rheumatology department told the Xinhua reporter that he had tried to get to see the doctor for three days but had not been able to get a ticket despite queuing for hours each day. He said he resented outsiders and scalpers taking up the appointments that should be prioritised for local patients.

However another doctor hinted that about half the 'add-on' patients were not outsiders or scalpers but connections - guangxi. They would be patients with some connection to an important person, whom the doctor would 'fit in' to repay a favour, build up guangxi 'credit' or perhaps they were just friends or relations. There are also hints that many of the add-on patients use 'hongbao' bribes to be fitted in to see the doctor at the end of his or her clinic. But another doctor said that add-on patients were not a source of extra revenue - quite the opposite. He said doctors were paid a base salary and therefore if they saw more patients they did not increase their income.  He added that it was not uncommon for a doctor to work a five hour shift from 8am to 1pm without a break. He joked that he dare not drink tea while at work as he never even had an opportunity to go to the bathroom because of the number of patients waiting to see him.

For whatever the reason, the problem of add-on patients is obviously a major one - and yet another example of the problems that come from a health system centred on overloaded city hospitals.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

China enacts draconian curbs on foreign healthcare NGOs

When a Chinese minister says a new arrangement is a "win-win situation" you know have lost. And so it is with China's new NGO Management Law, which is in effect a piece of highly restrictive legislation that will drastically curtail the activities of foreign health and medical NGOs, put them under the direct control of relevant ministries and subject them to tight monitoring and suppression by the Public Security Bureau. 

In what seem to be a parallel with the widespread crackdown on civil and legal rights with the mass arrest of lawyers, Xi Jinping has launched an aggressive campaign to strike against the increasing activities of health NGOs. Many of the activities of groups such as Oxfam and Project Hope may seem relatively inocuous to westerners - but programs focused on poverty alleviation, disability awareness, environmental health and promoting reproductive health, and offering health services to minorities are a highly sensitive subject for China's supposedly Communist administration. You only have to look at the crackdown on HIV organisations to see how the authorities react to any imaginary threat to their authority or the questioning of it.

Perhaps the authorities fear the so called "Third Sector" groups will undermine their legitimacy by highlighting the failures of the government to provide basic services. Or perhaps they are just paranoid, with ministers already on record as saying that NGO claims about "Big Society" are an underhand way of bringing about social revolution - a kind of Velvet Revolution in scrubs.

Whatever the reasons, the new conditions are harsh. The new law for regulating NGOs specifies that
  • At least 50% of staff must be local Chinese, 
  • All NGOs must register and gain permission for all programs in advance, 
  • NGOs must put themselves under the control of the relevant health ministry and departments.
  • Programs will only be permitted if they are in line with Chinese government policies. 
  • NGOs must also clear all their activities with the PSB and make all their documents and staff subject to instant inspection and ongoing monitoring.
Of course, this is not how the NGO Management Law has been reported in official media. On the contrary, it has been described as a measure that finally recognises the high value of NGO work and seeks to bolster the status of such efforts. The Chinese government said the new law it would provide better management "and strive to provide more convenience and service, better environment and security."

A meeting held to launch the new regulations was told that China "welcomed long-term friendly exchanges and cooperation, and that foreign NGOs brought China international capital, advanced technology and management experience, and their activities were conducive to the development of Chinese science and technology, people's livelihood, welfare and other aspects of business."

However, it was notable that the launch meeting was chaired by Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun rather than ministers responsible health or development. Guo said that China placed great importance on the work of health NGOs and wanted to further encourage them.

Nevertheless, the security chief also warned that NGOs must strictly obey Chinese laws and regulations, and the new NGO regulation was needed to ensure that NGO programs were conducted according to their stated purpose and "in an orderly manner" - that's Chinese official speak for not doing anything that is vaguely beyond government control.

Another speaker more pointedly warned against NGO "trickery", using the Chinese idiom of "displaying a sheep's head but selling dog meat" (“挂羊头卖狗肉”)

However NGO representatives and diplomats especially from the EU have strongly criticised the wide ranging and oppressive conditions in the new law. They say health NGOs already find it difficult to operate in China and the new law will make it even harder. The law curtails almost all the rights and functions of NGOs and their staff, and makes them subject to vague but sweeping and draconian powers of the PSB and ministries.

An EU representative said the new laws will impose an excessively heavy burden in terms of administrative, financial and personnel requirements on NGOs and greatly increase operating costs of the organizations, making their China programs unviable.

The meeting heard that there were about 1000 NGOs with long term programs in China and as many as 7000 with short term or one off aid programs. How they will be affected by the new measures remains to be seen.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Universal health insurance comes one step closer - but who's paying?

The big healthcare news from China this week is that a health insurance safety net for serious illness is being extended nationally. This means that if all goes to plan, poor people who develop catastrophic diseases such as cancer should not be left destitute by medical bills for care. Pilot programs that have been running at provincial level will now be extended to all provinces, according to an announcement by the State Council on July 22.
This will be good news for the many sad and desperate Chinese families who face financial ruin because of medical bills - or who are simply unable to pay and have to watch their loved ones die of treatable diseases. Some of them resort to all kinds of bizarre publicity stunts and begging methods to try raise the money to pay the medical bills. I have recently before about a girl who offered herself as a bride to any man who would pay her brother's medical bills.

According to the China Daily (hardly the most reliable of outlets), the meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang, cover for major illnesses will "cover all the subscribers to the urban and rural resident basic medical insurance as of the end of 2015", with full implementation in all 6800 public hospital in China by 2017.

A spokesman for the council said that there were 700 million impoverished people in China, of whom about 10 million are suffering from a chronic disease or major illness.The scheme will cover 50% of expenses initially, but this will be increased over time.

According to state media, the funding for the scheme will come from existing insurance accounts and therefore "will not be a financial burden to the beneficiaries". However, it also slipped in the detail that the safety net scheme will be run by commercial insurance agencies chosen by the government through bidding, with limits of 2-5% on profit margins.

"Introducing the third-party commercial insurance as operators will bring a better inspection performance to control medical fees and prevent waste or ill-designed fees" a government spokesman said.

China's commercial insurance companies are keen to get into the lucrative business of providing private health insurance. However, reading between the lines, it looks like the government has told them that covering the safety net for the impoverished will be a condition of their getting access to this market.

As China Daily, puts it:

Wu Ming, a professor of public health at Peking University, said many insurance companies may compete for the business despite lower profit margins, since it can bring many potential benefits.
"Participation in the program can pave the way for the insurers to enter further into the medical care sector in the future," she said.

However, as the more reliable Caixin magazine reports, commercial insurance companies are worried about the financial implications of taking on serious health insurance policies. The various pilot projects run in places such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang have shown the potential for major cost blowouts for uncapped schemes, and also problems with defining which illnesses are covered and who should pay for what. In some cases local governments, which administer (and fund) health insurance schemes tried to unload all their difficult patients onto the safety net. Or as they told Caixin magazine: "all the risk, none of the power, no voice".

The commercial companies also fear that they will be required to take on patients only after they have gone through the regular health insurance system over which they have not control. They believe that if they have a full package of insurance they would be able to control costs (and potentially prevent patients from developing serious illness) rather than just picking up the pieces.

At the State Council meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang, the government said it would be keeping a close watch on the safety net scheme and conducting many checks and inspections to ensure there was no abuse of the scheme.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

What are hospitals like in China? (Answer: congested)

Another week and another series of brutal attacks on hospital staff in China. This week it was the turn of an unfortunate female neurologist in Huizhou, Guangdong, who had her hand almost severed when she hacked with a machete by a disgruntled male patient. The man said he was unhappy with his treatment and attacked without warning when the doctor was on her ward rounds.

The authorities have made the usual responses - they have arrested the offender and tightened up security at the hospital. Tributes and donations have poured in from citizens sympathetic to the plight of the injured doctor. A petition against violence in healthcare has garnered half a million signatures from doctors - and the Guangdong health department has ordered that all medical institutions have a police office installed and manned around the clock.

The attack was one of 12 high profile violent incidents against health staff that occurred last week in China - including the smashing up of the 301 PLA Hospital in Beijing. What is the underlying reason for these attacks? One of the main factors often mentioned is that China's hospitals are simply overloaded and cannot offer adequate care to all patients - who then become angry and violent.

Is this because China's health system is underfunded or inefficient? Some interesting answers on the real situation about China's congested hospitals emerged this week in a lengthy paper in the academic journal Health Policy and Planning. It's worth reading if you want to know the background to China hospital system and how it got into the mess it's now in.

The authors paint a much more nuanced picture of China's hospital system than the usual overcrowded/underfunded/profit-seeking complaints. First of all they bust some myths. For a start, China's healthcare system is not massively underfunded by international standards - but it is  unevenly funded, with most resources devoted to city hospitals.

Also, China's hospital system is not uniformly overloaded - only the tertiary (highest level) hospitals are. The lower-level hospitals at county and township level are often underused and deserted because patients flock to what they perceive as the top quality care available at tertiary hospitals in cities.

The authors explain that this has come about for two reasons. Firstly, when China's hospitals were reformed by Deng Xiaoping, the high level city hospitals got a lot more investment and incentives than the township and country hospitals. This created a vicious circle because the large hospitals were able to invest in better equipment, and attract more patients. better staff and thus earned more 'business' (and income) while the county hospitals lost out.

However, the high level hospitals had two problems - they invested in infrastructure rather than staff, creating a shortage and misallocation of skills at the tertiary hospitals, where many staff are wasted dealing with minor illness.

Secondly, the tertiary hospital were bound by tight regulations on prices for essential drugs and medical services.  To overcome this, they invested in many unofficial services (eg cosmetic surgery, fertility clinics etc), which diverted resources away from frontline care. The restrictions on prices meant that hospitals had to overservice to gain more revenue - but it also meant that patients had no 'price signal' to seek care from local hospitals. They could get good care  at the tertiary hospital for the same price - even if it meant facing overcrowding and rushed consultations.

This, then, is the current situation in China's hospitals - an imbalanced system in which all patients flock to the short-staffed higher level hospitals, creating congestion and strife. The article by Dr Sun Zesheng and colleagues at the Zhejiang University of Science and Technology, Hangzhou, offers a simple solution: deregulate prices. They say that tertiary hospitals should charge a premium for their services, and patients should be encouraged to seek less expensive alternatives for non-urgent care at local hospitals and clinics. However, they also warn that the government must invest in better equipment and medical staff resources at lower level hospitals.

Until that happens, the big city hospitals will remain congested - and the pressure (and attacks) on staff will persist.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The medical side-effects of China's stockmarket crash


Headaches, irritability, depression and most of all insomnia are the most common medical side effects of China's stockmarket crash, doctors say.

Mental health specialists at Guangzhou's prestigious Sun Yat Sen Hospital say they have seen a stream of unwell patients this week suffering from the mental effects of severe stress from the stockmarket collapse.

"Some people can not sleep at night, have difficulty falling asleep or wake up in the early hours three or four times a night.
Many people have overt physical symptoms such as palpitations, chest tightness, aches and pains, stupor and confusion," says psychiatrist Dr Wei Qinling.

Dr Wei says the worst affected people are those with a casino mentality towards the stockmarket and those with little mental resilience, who are most at risk of severe depression, mental confusion and possible suicide risk. Other common reactions are despair, alcohol abuse and loss of motivation. Some workers in the finance industry say there is nothing to work for anymore, and they have lost a reason to work. Others have lost their livelihoods altogether. Dr Wei says some have gone on extreme drunken binges to try wipe out the stress.

And in what some are calling "stocks syndrome", people suffers from sever stress from the sudden reversal from riches to destitution. This is a mix of severe anxiety, guilt, frustration and mental paralysis. Dr Wei says some people have symptoms that are so severe they may require hospital admission and antidepressant treatment.

However, at the Beijing Union Medical College Hospital Department of Psychological Medicine, Dr Li Jianzhong says some people are looking for a quick fix for symptoms such as insomnia. Some of the most difficult to treat are those who were most greedy when the market was good and became obsessed with the stockmarket. After making large gains they are now in denial and are unable to accept that they have made losses and cannot adjust to reality. Counselling may be needed, but it requires people to learn about "spiritual wealth" as well as financial wealth, he says.

Dr Li says there are two steps to treating "stock syndrome". Firstly, people must identify the cause of their symptoms and learn to manage the stressors through activities such as deep breathing and findings distractive activities such as walking or sport. Secondly, people must find an alternative to obsession with the stockmarket and focus on that.

In Shanghai, psychologist Dr Chen Gong says there has been an increase in patients with 'financial stress' but it would be an exaggeration to say his department has been overwhelmed. For him, two of the most serious consequences of mental stress from the stockmarket are cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease. These may be triggered by severe stress, and people must learn to change their habits and behaviour to have a more balanced life, he suggests. Another problem with financial stress is its effect on the family,and relationships, he adds. He recommends that people talk openly with their family and focus more on family activities rather than being preoccupied with speculating on shares.

Dr Wei, however, warns that for some people the stockmarket has become a form of addiction, just like gambling. He warns family members to look out for signs of addiction and to recommend counselling and treatment for those who have become addicted to the stocks - and are at risk of withdrawal symptoms.

Monday, 6 July 2015

China's universal health insurance? Well, that depends what province you live in

China's government now claims that something like 90% of the population are covered by health insurance. It's a statistic that's repeated by people who should know better - including the editor of the Lancet.
In reality, the level and breadth of health insurance varies significantly between different provinces. Some have high rates of coverage, some have high rates of investment in their health funds. Some have both, some neither. An interesting analysis in Caixin by Yang Mingyu shows why the patterns of health insurance have emerged.
[Health insurance coverage (left) and investment per person (right) by province]

He divides the provinces into four groups, characterised by their health insurance profile.
Some he describes as ideal, with high rates of cover (80-90%) and investment (100-1800 yuan per person). These tend to be the affluent eastern coast provinces of Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu. A second group, typified by Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, (and weirdly, Tibet) have high rates of investment in their health insurance systems, but coverage isn't so great - sometimes as low as 60%. The third kind of insurance pattern is the 'cover' province: Sichuan, Guangxi, Chongqing, which have high rates of insurance cover but only modest investment in them. And finally we have the poor relations - the low cover and low investment provinces such as Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning.

Yang Mingyu says the  patterns are explained by a combination of economic strength, internal migration and the government's policy to maintain social stability. Investment in healthcare is seen as a major way of preserving social stability. Therefore, the government has invested heavily in health insurance in some of the  provinces where there have been large inflows of migrant labour. Conversely, some of the poorer provinces  have a left behind population of mostly elderly and children with high healthcare requirements but little capacity to contribute to healthcare costs. The government has promoted wider membership of health funds in these areas to reap premiums needed to support the health infrastructure.

However, there have been some 'backward' conservative provinces with few financial resources and also little investment in the health funds.

The article concludes by saying that some provinces need to be encouraged to reform their health insurance systems and provide more cover or investment to suit local needs, even if the local circumstances do not favour it.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

China healthcare's "Sunshine Act" and the journalist who exposed corruption: common cause?

[Banner outside Beijing court says: Support Journalist Chai Huiqun!]


With China's media often containing significant items of "managed opinion" it's hard to tell whether common themes that emerge in coverage are coincidence or not. Take this week's high profile case of a health journalist involved in legal action over an article in which he exposed corruption in purchasing at a Sichuan hospital. Is this a case of censorship by litigation - or is the government trying to use this case to back its own policy of reforming hospital purchasing?

The legal action in question is between the China Medical Doctor's Association and Southern Weekend journalist Chai Huiqun. The CDMA has lodged an official complaint against Chai to authorities over his reports about corruption in purchasing of medical equipment at the Mianyang Hospital following the major earthquake there in 2008. Chai wrote articles exposing inflated prices claimed for old equipment. The scam was based around the hospital claiming generous funding was spent on expensive ultrasound scanners but actually buying cheap second hand ones.

As reported by RFA, the CMDA put in a complaint to the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), claiming that the stories were fabricated, and offered as evidence receipts proving that the hospital equipment was genuine. The ACJA accepted the complaint, which was a major blow to Chai's reputation and which effectively blacklisted him.

Now Chai has counterattacked with a legal action in a Beijing court, claiming 20,000 yuan damages and demanding that the statements and articles issued by the CMDA are retracted. In his claim, Chai points out that the receipts are for the wrong kind of scanners, new models which weren't even available in 2008. The court has yet to announce its verdict.

Chai is one of China's leading investigative journalists, working for the relatively liberal Southern Weekend (while it is relatively 'open' its contents cannot be syndicated). He specialises in exposing the dark side of the healthcare industry in China - and has made many enemies. If he is stymied, this will be a major blow for open-ness in the healthcare system in China.

However, Chai may be working in the right direction. Local governments and health departments are being ordered by the central government to clean up their acts and be more transparent and accountable in their purchasing of healthcare supplies.

In Beijing this week the Municipal Health and Family Planning Commission has launched a "Sunshine Program" to reveal the true value and scope of healthcare purchasing. Hospital and health institutions must publish comprehensive 'shopping lists' of all their purchasing and tenders, including all items and prices. This is to encourage and genuine free and open market for hospital supplies and to avoid dodgy backroom deals, the health department says.

If this kind of system had been operating in Mianyang in 2008, perhaps Chai would not have had anything to report.