Sunday, 19 April 2015

Alibaba Health, iKang, Online consultations, Tobacco advertising ban, Antibiotics in food, HIV discrimination

by MICHAEL WOODHEAD

Hello and welcome to another week of China Healthcare. As China makes headlines around the world for its slowing economy, few have remarked that China's entrepreneurs are taking a different and more rosy view by re-focusing on healthcare. This week the Alibaba internet billionaire Jack Ma has issued a $2.5 billion vote of confidence in the prospect for online pharmacy in China by transferring his pharmacy e-commerce section to Alibaba Health ("Ali Jiankan" or alijk.com).  According to the WSJ, "Alibaba said the deal would position it to sell prescription pharmaceuticals should China’s reforms allow retailers to move in that direction".

At the same time, Forbes has profiled another internet millionaire who has made his fortune by turning to health. Zhang Ligang made his first fortune by founding the travel booking site e-Long, but he is more famous for building a chain of private clinics under the banner iKang. And if China really does shift to a more private healthcare system, companies like iKang should be at the forefront of the wave.

The NHFPC has banned online medical diagnosis. In a statement this week the health ministry said medical consultations cannot be conducted online as there have been too many cases of unqualified people offering medical advice, purporting to be experts. The ban does not seem to apply to accredited hospitals that have approved programs. What this means for online doctor apps such as Spring Rain (www.chunyuyisheng.com) remains to be seen.

Children in China are exposed to a wide variety of antibiotics in food, which may promote resistance. A study in Shanghai that tested the urine of more than a 1000 children aged between 8 and 11 years of age found that as most had traces of at least one antibiotic and many had several antibiotics in their system.  Altogether 18 different antibiotics were found in the urine of Shanghai children, reflecting the high levels of antibiotics used in food production in China. This was confirmed by another report out this week which noted that the Chinese food and livestock industries use 100,000 tons of antibiotics  a year to promote growth in animals reared for their meat.

A total ban on tobacco advertising n China has been urged by the WHO. The head of the China office of WHO said China had a treaty obligation to phase out tobacco advertising, and should start to do so at retail points of sale. However, the powerful state-owned tobacco industry might baulk at that. The relative power of the health and tobacco industry was shown this week when health minister Li Bin noted that new graduates could earn twice as much in the tobacco industry compared to medical graduates working in hospitals. She made the point that the basic salary for a university graduate working in the tobacco industry was 4571 yuan a month compared to only 2100 yuan a month for a junior doctor. Li Bin said there was a need to learn from Adam Smith and pay the market rate for medical graduates - and this would mean patients being prepared to pay higher medical fees.

And finally the question arises of whether anti-HIV discrimination still exists in the China's hospitals. A patient at the Sichuan University Huaxi Hospital says he was refused surgery when doctors discovered his HIV positive status. The man said he had been scheduled to have surgery for haemangioma but it was cancelled and he was told that he would instead be kept 'under observation' instead. The hospital rejected the discrimination claim, saying that it was standard practice to keep patients under observation before going ahead with surgery for this condition.

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