Monday, 26 January 2015

My January news blog ...

Regrettably, I am cutting back on my blogging about China medical news this year. I've been doing this for more than a year now, out of enthusiasm and my own personal interest in the area, but it's becoming too much of a burden on my time. And of course it is all unpaid. Unless there is a sponsor out there who wishes a regular stream of China medical news? After my day job doing much the same thing about Australian medical news I find it hard to sit down at home and do the writing for this blog. So from now on I shall probably only update the site about once a week. That is not enough to cover the many things happening in healthcare in China, but that's your lot. As they say in Yorkshire, you don't get owt for nowt.

This week I have been reading about how patients in Shanghai with chronic diseases will now be able to pick up their repeat prescriptions from community clinics instead of the big hospitals. It's a move intended to relieve the overcrowding at the tertiary hospitals and sounds like an obvious and sensible idea. Whether it will work or not depends on whether China's hospital-obsessed patients can be persuaded to show up at the low-status community clinics.

There are also moves to try curb China's high levels (approaching 50%) of caesarean section intervention in pregnancy. A feature article by Yang Wanli describes how some obstetricians in China are trying to persuade women to opt for natural birth. However, the barriers are a lack of available analgesia for women in labour and the industrial production-line mentality of China's hospitals.

Rural health is a major issue in China this month, with the State Council approving a plan to boost the rural medical workforce. The Council wants to see rural areas of China have qualified doctors replace the current 'barefoot' practitioners. However, well-meaning intentions will not fix the huge rural medical workforce problem in China. The simple problem is that university qualified doctors do not want to work in rural villages. The pay is pathetic, there is no status and the workload is high. As this article shows, the current rural medical workforce is mostly unqualified and often dangerously lacking in skills.

That's not to say that rural health is completely hopeless in China. There have been great achievements in some areas of public health such as immunisation and basic child health. However, as a major article by Chinese paediatricians the Archives of Diseases in Childhood shows, the next step for China is to try reduce the incidence of more complex diseases in children. China has done well in tackling the easily preventable causes of child disease, now it must turn its attention to the difficult stuff - the consequences of preterm birth, and the many congenital and metabolic diseases.

One problem with monitoring China's progress in child health is knowing whether or not the official  figures are true. Take measles vaccination for example. According to official reports, China has 95% measles vaccine coverage of infants. But when researchers analysed the causes of measles outbreaks in Hunan and Jiangsu that affected hundreds of children they found that the actual rates of measles immunisation more like 80%.

And finally, for those who put their faith in western healthcare companies helping improve the health of China, take a cautionary look at the sorry tale of GSK. A well regarded company in the west, GSK was the subject of high profile bribery allegations and a court case that jailed one of its British executives for  his role in the bribes to doctors and hospitals. Now the company is reported to be cutting the jobs of 1000 employees in China following the downturn in its business there (including a 60% drop in revenue).

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Lost post

I just spent an hour writing a great article about the Chinese government's moves to encourage public hospital doctors to work in private practice. But my internet browser crashed and I lost it.

Short version: there is little enthusiasm for this move by doctors because of the practical barriers: pensions, medical indemnity insurance and new contracts on working hours/remuneration. Also barriers because public hospitals don't want to lose their 'talent' and see the same doctors working in 'competition' against them (not to mention the conflict of interest this creates). And importantly for doctors, their careers are determined by the public hospital system, from which they get their experience, evaluations, academic training and status.

Conclusion: Moving to more flexible public/private working arrangements in healthcare is an immense challenge for China and won't happen overnight.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Fertility clinics drive thriving black market in eggs

Young Chinese women are risking their fertility by selling off their eggs to unscrupulous fertiliy clinics, a CCTV program has claimed.

As part of an investigation into the "human egg black market" CCTV found that high school students and university students were selling their eggs to agents for a few thousand yuan. The clinics then offer these eggs to infertile women who pay 30,000- 100,000 yuan (US$5000-$15,000).

The report said young girls were picked because of their looks, education and health and had to endure a series of injections with fertility hormones to stimulate ovulation so their eggs could be harvested by clinics. The young women said they used the cash to pay off credit card debts, but most were unaware of the serious risks of the procedures, including infertility.

Commentators said the commercial transactions of human eggs were illegal and banned, but there was little enforcement of the rules in practice. They said illegal clinics and the doctors who worked in them made large amounts of money, offering infertile women the chance to select a donor egg based on looks, intelligence and other personal characteristics of the donor. Despite being illegal, the egg black market was a thriving market and barely concealed  with advertisements by agents common on the internet.

The report said the fertility agents and their networks also offered infertile women other services such as surrogate mothers, as part of packages that could cost as much as 400,000 yuan.The trade was very lucrative and many young women saw nothing ethically wrong with what they were doing, it said.
The commentators said there was a need for a widespread crackdown to enforce the regulations on artificial reproductive technology. There was also a need to better regulate reproductive clinics and promote legitimate egg donation rather than the commercial practices, they added.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Statin therapy has disappointing results in Chinese patients

by Michael Woodhead
Only about one in four Chinese patients taking a statin have their cholesterol levels under control, according to a new study.

A review of the effects of statin therapy in 8965 outpatients with cardiovascular disease from 200 clinical departments of 122 hospitals across China found that about 75% of patients still had poorly controlled lipid levels.

The findings, published in the International Journal of Cardiology showed that despite taking long term statin therapy in medium to high doses, about 75% of patients had an above-target LDL-cholesterol level. In a similar manner elevated levels of total cholesterol and triglycerides as well as low HDL-cholesterol persisted in 34–43% of patients despite statin therapy, according to Professor Wei Yidong and colleagues at the Department of Cardiology, Shanghai Tenth People’s Hospital and Tongji University School of Medicine.

Only about 10% of patients overall had optimal levels of all lipid measures (LDL, HDL and triglycerides) despite taking statins. Patients with diabetes had slightly better control of lipid levels (43%) compared to those without diabetes (39%).

The study authors said it was not clear why patients taking statins did not have good control of their lipid levels. Oddly, there appeared to be no relationship between the potency of the statin doses and the degree of lipid level control.

About 77% of patients taking low doses of statins had LDL-C not at goal, compared to 72% of patients taking medium potency regimens and 74% of patients taking high potency courses of statins.
Chinese patients may need more intensive lipid-lowering therapy with additional agents other than statins, to improve their lipid levels. Patients may also need more attention on lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise before starting statin therapy, they added.

However, they could not rule out poor adherence to treatment a a possible cause of the poor lipid control.

Friday, 9 January 2015

China's doctors now officially encouraged to moonlight in the private sector

China's 'health ministry', the National Health and Family Planning Commission, has told doctors in the public hospital system that they should seek additional work in  private hospitals.
Health minister Li Bin told a conference this week that the registration regulations for doctors had been changed to encourage practitioners to work outside of the public hospital system.
"Limited resources of talent will be optimized among hospitals of various types under the initiative, which helps with the sustainable and healthy development of privately funded medical institutions," she said.
Doctors will no longer 'belong' to public hospitals and will be encouraged to work for market-set fees in private hospitals.
According to the China Daily, one senior doctor said he hoped his patients would 'follow' him to the better environment of the private hospital where he intends to practice, despite him charging much higher fees there.
The health minister told a NHFPC conference this week that she was urging private health institutions to provide a range of healthcare services, both treatment and prevention, to help divert patients from public hospitals, which are usually overloaded with work.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Inequity in access to healthcare: China has the worst record of any major country

by Michael Woodhead
Despite claiming to have health insurance coverage of more than 90%, China has some of the highest levels of inequity in access to healthcare in the world, a new study shows. 

A review of socioeconomic inequities in healthcare utilisation carried by by Dr Zhang Xin and colleagues at Harbin Medical University found that China fared very poorly compared to its neighbours such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

The study based on data from 2008, found huge differences in access to outpatient care based on income and even greater inequities for in-patient care. Chinese on low incomes were much less likely to be able to get hospital treatment compared to their compatriots on higher incomes, according to the findings published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health.

The researchers said their findings confirmed previous work that had shown that one in four poorer Chinese had been unable to get hospital treatment when they needed it because they could not afford it. Low income Chinese people with chronic and serious diseases were particularly badly affected by income disparities and lack of access to healthcare, they said.

They said that the New Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme introduced in 2003 had made a slight improvement to access to healthcare, but poor patients still missed out on needed treatment because of  high gap fees, limits to insurance cover eligibility and high insurance fees.

Dr Zhang said most OECD countries had a relatively little inequity for healthcare access, especially those that had good primary care systems and free-at-the-point-of-care treatment.

"Despite growth in health insurance coverage, the challenge of perusing equitable pathways toward universal health coverage is still truly daunting task in China," they concluded.

"Being poor and lacking the ability to pay additional out-of-pocket charges remains a significant barrier to access [to healthcare]."

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Plague debrief: what really happened in the July 2014 Gansu case of pneumonic plague?

by Michael Woodhead
In July 2014 a case of pneumonic plague was widely reported in the media.

The victim was a 38-year old shepherd who caught the infection from a marmot (the usual carriers of the infection) after it was caught by his dog. At the time it was widely reported that the town of Yumen (near Jiayuguan) where he was treated, had been put into lockdown. None of the 30,000 residents were allowed to leave town and more than 150 close contacts were kept under observation in quarantine. It looks like Chinese authorities did the right thing - but only after a fatal delay in the initial diagnosis. A new report published by the local infection control team gives more details of the case.

Dr Ge Pengfei and colleagues say that the man contracted the Yersinia pestis infection from an infected marmot after it was caught by his dog on 11 July. He skinned the marmot for its pelt and fed the meat to his dogs. Two days later the shepherd started to develop respiratory symptoms and went into a nearby village to seek treatment. However, when he first went to the local clinic on 15 July he was mis-diagnosed as having a simple respiratory tract infection and given just a prescription for an antibiotic (clindamycin) and some anti-inflammatories. When his condition worsened later that day he was seen by doctors at the hospital in Yuman, who diagnosed pneumonia on x-ray and they gave him an ineffective antibiotic, cefoperazone, and more anti-inflammatory treatment.

It was only later that night when the man's condition deteriorated further and he started coughing up blood that throat swabs were taken, which showed the presence of the characteristic Yersinia bacilli when tested. Doctors then gave the man the recommended treatment of IV streptomycin, but this was too late and probably did more harm than good in the rapidly advancing conditions of the infection. Streptomycin must be used with great care in advanced plague because it cases the Y. pestis bacteria to burst (lysis) and release large amounts of the endotoxin that causes septic shock. This is what happened in the case of the Gansu shepherd, whose quickly deteriorated in the early hours of 16 July and he died at 5am.

The infection control team said they also detected Yersinia infection in the man's sister in law and in two patients who had been in close contact with him at the hospital. These people were among the 150 close contacts subject to quarantine and to preventive treatment with streptomycin. This containment strategy worked, as none of the close contacts developed full blown pneumonic plague.

The infection control team said them man may have survived if his infection has been detected earlier. However, the village clinic and hospital had only limited medical facilities, and the plague was only picked up when cultures were examined under a microscope.

They said that local clinics in areas such as Gansu where plague is present (on average there is one case per year in the region) should be alert for the early signs of the infection - and be prepared to take a careful history to see if there has been any contact with potential sources such as marmots and infected dogs. Despite the death of the patient, they said the incident had shown that quarantine and antibiotic prophylaxis procedures for contacts were effective.

"Doctors need to improve awareness and ask about contact history for the possibility of plague infection to avoid misdiagnosis," they recommended.

International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Drug resistant bacteria - just how much of a problem are they in a typical Chinese hospital?

by Michael Woodhead
With broad spectrum antibiotics easily available over the counter in China  - and the Chinese cultural expectation of an antibiotic as the magic bullet for every viral fever - it's not surprising that drug resistance is a major problem in the PRC. 
But just how common is the problem for a typical provincial hospital? The rather worrying answer is quite a big problem. A study carried out in the Liaocheng People's Hospital in Shandong has found that one in three bacteria samples obtained from around the hospital were multi-drug resistant. Researchers at the hospital took almost 10,600 microbial samples from around the hospital and found that  33.4% were multi-drug resistant pathogens such as ESBLs producing E. coli and A. baumannii. The blackspots for resistant bacteria were in surgical departments and the intensive care department. Samples obtained from respiratory and secretions were the greatest source of resistant bacteria. The obvious consequences of these multi-drug resistant bacteria are treatment failure, longer hospital stays, increased mortality, and higher hospitalisation costs. As the authors conclude, their findings show the need for much greater attention to antibiotic resistance, especially from respiratory cases and surgical wounds.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Will Beijing's billion yuan "loss leader" private hospital be the model for the future?

by Michael Woodhead
Peking University's flagship new private hospital may lose almost a billion yuan but will still be counted a success if it drives other medical service usage, its backers say.

An article by He Chunmei in the financial magazine Caixin this week heralds the opening of the 1800-bed Peking University International Hospital (PUIH), which is a joint venture by Peking University and the Founder Group. The hospital in the north of the city is expected to lose as much as 800 million yuan but Founder CEO Li You says this is acceptable if the hospital generates revenue in other areas. "It's like a company's advertising department that spends money. We will earn money from other sectors. But the hospital is the foundation," he is quoted in Caixin as saying.

The new hospital is being portrayed as a flagship of China's foray into privately-invested healthcare as an alternative from the current overcrowded and underfunded public system. One of the main barriers to private hospital development in China to date has been the regulations that bar doctors from working outside the official public hospitals. The new hospital will test the recent relaxation of these rules by the government. But employment restrictions have not been the only barrier to private healthcare facilities - many clinicians have been reluctant to work outside the big hospital system for a variety of reasons - fear of stepping off the well-established career pathway, losing peer support groups and moving outside the system that is recognised by health insurance rebates. Doctors have also been unwilling to go it alone and take on the medicolegal risks of operating outside the mainstream system, especially at a time when patients are becoming increasingly distrustful of the healthcare system and prone to taking aggressive action in medical disputes.

The new Peking University International Hospital may overcome many of these reservations because it will 'share' doctors and other healthcare staff from other Peking University-affiliated hospitals, which already enjoy a good reputation for quality care. However the management of the new hospital acknowledge that the new workforce 'sharing' arrangements will require some work and 'adjustments' to coordinate different departments and different hospitals. The hospital says it will lure staff with offers of higher pay, which will be guided by the market rather than the patchy, commission-based remuneration of state-controlled public hospitals. "Head doctors usually earn several hundred of thousands of yuan every year at a public hospital," said Li You. "But if necessary, we'd like to pay more than 1 million yuan. We will fully follow the market."

The private hospital will also differ from public hospitals in being managed by a board of directors representing investors. Public hospitals are often a conglomeration of mini-empires, with directors of departments often having a lot of power and being unaccountable in terms of services, revenue and purchasing.

The Peking University Healthcare groups say they will be able to implement a more efficient system as they will have a controlling interest in the hospital, whereas public hospitals are often controlled by government agencies, business groups and hospital managers that are resistant to reform. Li says his ambition is to pioneer a new model of hospital management based on integrated databases that will create accountability and efficiency in procurement, servicing and supply. The management system will also encourage doctors in departments of larger hospitals to sponsor and support similar departments in smaller branch hospitals.

"We will grow to become China's largest hospital management company," Li told Caixin, "and control the largest medical database."

Sunday, 4 January 2015

"Family doctors" refuse to work in community

by Michael Woodhead
Guangdong province has trained more than 50,000 family doctors in the last few years but only 20,000 of them have opted to work as general practitioners in the community, a conference has been told.
Most of the doctors trained to be general practitioners have been put off by the low pay, low status and unattractive career prospects of community medicine and have opted instead to stay in the "more developed" hospital system, according to a speaker at the inaugural Guangdong Provincial Association of Family Physicians. Dr Wang Jiaji, head of the Family Physicians Association said patients should be able to enrol with a community-based family doctors and be offered treatment for minor illnesses and referrals for more serious conditions. However, he said the current environment for family medicine in the province made it unattractive to medical graduates. He said Guangdong had planned to have 2 GPs per 10,000 residents but currently only had one GP per 10,000 people, and this was far behind the level of 5 per 10,000 residents seen in developed countries such as the US. To try change the situation, he said Guangdong had become the first province to set u[ a local family doctor association, to encourage better training and make general practice a more attractive career. He also called on the government to invest more in primary care.