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.