Sunday, 3 January 2016

Actress Li Bingbing disparages Australian medical system, flies back to China for tonsillitis treatment


Chinese star Li Bingbing has lit up social media with scathing criticism of Australia's healthcare system, claiming in a Weibo post that Australian doctors had been inept and unable to treat her severe tonsillitis. The actress eventually flew back to China where she received intravenous antibiotic treatment at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital and was said to be recovering. The actress claimed she was relieved  to be back in the "good care of the motherland", but her Weibo post triggered an online debate about the merits of China's healthcare system, overuse of antibiotics and how the privileged can jump the queue.

The star of such critically-acclaimed films such as Resident Evil: Retribution had been in Australia filming the scifi movie 'Nest' (about a labyrinth of man-eating funnel web spiders, apparently) when she became feverish with a temperature of 39 degrees. On her blog she said she went to the hospital but was forced to wait two hours to see a doctor, who finally agreed to do blood tests as she suspected she had SARS. However the tests were negative and she was discharged. Li Bingbing said her temperature fluctuated and she 'burned for two weeks', although the photos she posted showed only a temperature of 37.5 degrees.

On December 6 she posted photos on Weibo showing her in the bed of an unnamed hospital, which she claimed was in Australia, with blood stains on the bedsheets which she said was from a botched attempt to insert an IV line. She wrote that the nurse had been unable to insert a needle into a vein despite three attempts and compared her poor technique to the superior skills  of Chinese medical staff. The superstar complained that she had been to three different hospitals without getting any satisfactory treatment for her fever and had therefore returned to China for medical care.

[UPDATE: I have been told that some of Li Bingbing's photos do not match those of an Australian hospital - the equipment is not that used by Australian hospitals. Also, Australian hospital policies require linen to be changed immediately if soiled by blood.]

The Weibo post elicited  a response from an ethnic Chinese  doctor working in Australia, who said that Li Bingbing's claims suggested that she did not understand Australia's medical system and how to seek help. The doctor explained how Australia had a gatekeeper system of GPs, and that unlike China, hospitals in Australia were not the place to seek initial treatment for fevers. He said GPs would usually advise rest and fluids for fevers rather than antibiotics, but he also questioned why the star had a fever for 14 days before seeking treatment. He was unable to explain why Australian doctors might have missed severe tonsillitis and said he did not have the full medical details due to hospital confidentiality regulations.

However, Li Bingbing's management then issued a legal letter demanding that media retract and delete this doctor's article because it was based on inaccuracies. The star claimed to have followed the Australian system rules for seeking medical care  and said she had consulted a "famous" Australian doctor and two other doctors - including GPs. The star's management also strongly denied that Li Bingbing had sought preferential treatment or had been unable to understand English properly.

The saga triggered a wide ranging debate in China's social media, with some netizens saying that the episode was a lesson for Chinese not to "blindly worship" foreign countries and their healthcare systems. Some said it showed that China's doctors and nurses were more skilled, and also that Australian doctors had little experience in treating common illnesses for Chinese patients.

However, other online commenters said that the incident revealed the differences between Chinese and foreign hospital attitudes to use of antibiotics and infusions. They said it showed that foreign hospitals were more strict about antibiotic overuse, and also that they had more careful treatment pathways and did not give in to public pressure for inappropriate treatment. Some critics said Li Bingbing's praise for the "care of the motherland" sounded like government propaganda. However, others used a play on a Chinese saying: "the moon isn't rounder in foreign skies" to assert that  medical care should not be assumed to be better in foreign countries.

Li Bingbing's social media criticism may be a setback for the many countries hoping to cash in on Chinese medical tourists. However, Li Bingbing is not exactly a trusted expert in evidence-based healthcare. According to Wikipedia, she has a qigong practitioner for a 'godfather' who claims to be able to conjure up snakes from thin air and cured her mother of a mysterious disease.

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