In 2016, Chinese search engine Baidu triggered a wave of controversy after netizens exposed how the company offers advertised space for fraudulent doctors. Medical institutions reportedly paid Baidu large amounts of money to be prominently featured in their search results – often giving false hope to patients who hope to be cured.
Now, a year later, the search engine again angers Chinese netizens for linking to the address of a private clinic when people search for a Shenzhen city hospital. The issue was exposed by a surgeon working at the Shenzhen City Children’s Hospital on Weibo, attracting thousands of comments and shares within days.
Many netizens say that they are done with Baidu, as the company has ‘no integrity.’
The Wei Zexi Incident
The big 2016 Baidu controversy came to light in early May after the death of the cancer patient Wei Zexi (魏则西). Wei was a 21-year old student suffering a rare form of cancer. After several unsuccessful treatments, he turned to search engine Baidu.
Through one of Baidu’s paid results, Wei found a treatment at the Beijing Armed Police Corps No. 2 Hospital (武警二院) he thought could help him. With the help of friends and family, he came up with the 200,000 RMB (31,000US$) for the treatment, which later turned out to be ineffective and highly contested. Wei made headlines when he passed away shortly after.
Since he was an active user on a well-known message board where he shared his experiences, the topic of his death became a much-discussed on Chinese social media.
Further investigation exposed that the controversial treatment was done by the Putian Medical Group (莆田系医院), an organized group of medical entrepreneurs that dominates most of China’s private hospitals. It led to a stream of online responses from people who say they were also duped by the Putian Medical Group. Many recounted how their appointment at a Putian-related clinic had cost them a lot of money even when the public hospital doctor later diagnosed they had no health problems at all.
Amongst the many messages were also those of people who previously worked at Putian hospitals. Some told that the expert doctors that were advertised in reality did not even work at the clinics and that the staff was not qualified to do the abortion procedures they offered.
The Putian Medical Group
Putian’s monopoly in China’s private healthcare system goes back to the 1980s when the city of Putian grew into a town of ‘medical practitioners’ without official medical university degrees. The people of Putian discovered a medical goldmine by treating stigmatized conditions (such as STD’s) that were rarely treated at public hospitals.
Throughout the 1990s, the medical network of Putian was opening up clinics across China. These hospitals were amongst the first to advertise their treatments. They also signed contracts with public hospitals to run specific departments.
Putian and Baidu have had a close-knit relationship for years. Baidu has made a fortune through Putian’s advertisements, and Putian has also further expanded its business by being featured on the search engine.
“Led to a privately owned hospital by Baidu”
Baidu has now become trending again for its dubious practices, as netizens have uncovered how Baidu Maps directs users to a Putian-owned clinic when searching for a nearby children’s hospital.
On July 10, the hashtag “Led to a privately-owned hospital by Baidu” (#被百度地图带到民营医院#) was in the top 10 of most-read topics on Sina Weibo.
Baidu Maps redirects patients to the wrong hospital in Shenzhen.
The issue came to light when a medical staff member of the Shenzhen City Children’s Hospital (深圳市儿童医) discovered that Baidu maps indicated their work unit had “moved.” When searching for the hospital, Baidu provided the address of the Putian Far East Women’s Hospital (远东妇儿医院). This leads many patients to visit the Putian hospital, thinking they are actually visiting the Shenzhen City Children’s Hospital.
The information was disclosed by a surgeon of the Shenzhen Hospital (@深圳胖胖熊) on July 7 on Weibo, where his post soon received thousands of shares.
The doctor writes:
“The Shenzhen Children’s Hospital address was originally 709 Yitian Road, Futian District. Unfortunately, in the Baidu map search results, the link underneath this name redirects to the address of the Putian Far East Women’s Hospital, and its name is underneath on the second place. This leads many parents who want to come to our hospital to go to the Putian Department. Is this negligence, or deliberate? What is the purpose? Could I say that this is shameless?”
On July 10, Baidu responded to the controversy through Weibo, calling the search results an “error” that was immediately being adjusted by the relevant departments.
“A dog can’t stop himself from eating shit”
But many people on Weibo do not believe that the misleading information is a simple error, with some saying that this is not the first time this has happened. Others also point out that this is “too much of a coincidence,” since the ‘error’ is linked to a Putian clinic.
Many people say that Baidu has already lost its integrity: “Bad habits are hard to change,” some people write (literally: “a dog can’t stop himself from eating shit” [“狗改不了吃屎”]).
“I don’t believe you anymore, your credibility records have become too low,” some commenters said.
The alleged unethical practices of Baidu lead many people to use the Alibaba-backed Gaode Maps (高德地图) instead of Baidu.
“I’d never expect for this to get so big,” the surgeon from Shenzhen City Children’s Hospital said on Weibo in response to all the attention his initial post has received: “I am just protecting the patients’ rights, and I feel responsible for protecting the reputation of my hospital.”
Another commenter, a medical professor from Chengdu, said on Weibo: “The internet has brought us much convenience, but we need to remain clear-headed and critical when using it – this holds especially true for Baidu search engine, Baike [Baidu online encyclopedia], and Baidu Maps.”
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