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.