It's that time of the year again - the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The toothless talking shop cum fancy dress parade as deputies from around China meet to chinwag and talk up the government's policies. It's an occasionally interesting forum - some grievances are allowed to be aired, but usually only to justify measures that are already being taken.
There has been quite a bit of talk about healthcare this year. Most of the problems discussed are ones that have been given a regular airing on this blog: doctors' income linked to overservicing, excessive workload of doctors and the issue of publish for promotion. On the last point, Prime minister Li Keqiang attended one meeting that heard about the problem of junior doctors having to publish academic papers in order to qualify for promotion. He was told that more than a quarter of doctors had their articles written for them by ghostwriters and agencies. The PM said this was a bad situation and doctor's should be rated on their practical skills, not writing skills.
Our old friend Professor Zhong Nanshan made an appearance at one People's Conference, at which he re-stated his concerns about doctors' pay being linked to sales of drugs and number of procedures and devices provided. He cited the case of one cardiologist who implanted several expensive cardiac stents for a patients who was not even seriously ill. Zhong Nanshan said the problem of doctors' ethic arose because up to 80% of their income was tied to hospital profits. This meant doctors were given quotas to meet and the 'profit-driven' mentality meant that hospitals were more like department stores than public health facilities, he said. Zhong Nanshan said that to end the problem of overservicing there was a need to de-link doctors' incomes from prescribing and servicing levels. Doctors should be paid a higher basic salary that reflected their worth, he said - and he stressed this did not mean a return to the 'iron rice bowl' mentality.
The problems caused by pharmaceutical commission were highlighted this week by the news that GSK is to sack 110 of its employees in China in the wake of last year's massive bribery scandal that resulted in the company being fined $450 million. The widespread use of bribes, commissions and backhanders caused a lot of pain for the multinational pharma company when exposed. The staff who have lost their jobs may well be scapegoats. The man at the top, CEO Andrew Whitty, kept his job but had his salary package halved to a measly $6 million. Whitty said “substantial changes” had been made at GSK China, including training for managers in anti-bribery and corruption practices.
Other 'unhealthy tendencies' raised at the CPPCC include the hospital VIP suites reserved for officials and local bigwigs. Professor Huang Zemin of East China Normal University said hospitals had two different worlds, with the VIP outpatient wards reserved for officials being quiet and luxurious whereas the outpatient room for the general public was crowded and noisy. A fair point, but the VIP suites have already been slated for abolition, so he's hardly breaking new ground there.
And also from the CPPCC, a cry for help from the paediatricians. One of the country's top paediatricians, Professor Shu Xiaomei, told the CPPCC that there was a crisis in paediatrics as very few doctors go into this branch of medicine in China. The reasons are that paediatricians earn very little compared to other doctors, again because they don't prescribe so many drugs or do many procedures). Another reason for the unpopularity of paediatrics is the high workload and the huge pressure from pushy parents - often leading to violence when things go wrong. Professor Shu said there was also no formal training program for paediatrics, unlike other specialties and therefore the speciality was a 'tree without roots'.
The workforce theme was raised by another delegate at the CPPCC, who said that China simply does not have enough qualified doctors to do everything that the public expected of them. His succinct appraisal was that "without more doctors, all discussion about health reforms is empty talk. "
Other CPPCC delegates said that the push to create a primary care system based around community clinics was commendable but facing the major problem of neither doctors nor patients wanting to go anywhere near primary health clinics. Dr Zhao Ping, of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, said patients did not go to local clinics because they had poor equipment and poorly trained staff and could not refer to the best specialists.
"People don't trust these clinics and hospitals. The thing is, people want to go to better and larger hospitals, and so do healthcare workers. We don't have a mechanism in-place to keep our best healthcare workers at community clinics," he said.
But it's not just the CPPCC, here are some other major medical news stories from China this week:
- Two doctors in their 20s have died suddenly of 'overwork' in the last few weeks, prompting some doctors to say that the pressure of work is too high.
- China's first new advertising law in 20 years is expected to tighten up regulations around advertising of medical products and healthcare services .
- A Fuzhou doctor became a social media viral sensation when he was photographed working while hooked up to an IV infusion. Weibo users praised him for his dedication for working while sick.
- International medical experts have expressed concern at China's crackdown on ketamine. While the drug is sometimes abused, it is also a very important and safe anaesthetic, and any restriction would be a major blow for safe surgery in poor countries, they say.