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Behind the Baidu Scandal: Baidu and the Putian Medical Group

The scandal revolving around Wei Zexi, the 21-year-old cancer patient who died after finding misleading treatment information on search engine Baidu, has uncovered a huge Chinese profit-driven healthcare market, in which Baidu and Putian Medical Group are running the show.

Manya Koetse

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The scandal revolving around Wei Zexi, the 21-year-old cancer patient who died after finding misleading treatment information on search engine Baidu, has uncovered a huge Chinese profit-driven healthcare market, in which Baidu and Putian Medical Group are running the show.

Baidu has been making headlines for the past days for its alleged involvement in the death of the 21-year-old cancer patient Wei Zexi. Wei, a frequent visitor of China’s online forum Zhihu.com, spent 200,000 RMB to receive an ineffective and contested form of immunotherapy at the Beijing Armed Police Corps No. 2 Hospital (武警二院) – a treatment that was promoted on China’s leading search engine Baidu.

Wei’s death sparked controversy on Chinese social media, where netizens are angered about Baidu’s practices of allowing medical institutions to pay to be prominently featured in their search results.

Further investigation has now exposed that the hospital where Wei was treated subcontracted the controversial therapy to the Putian Medical Group, which dominates most of China’s private hospitals.

Most Chinese are familiar with these hospitals or services, although they might not be aware of the fact they belong to the Putian group. Now that the relations between Baidu and Putian have become the focus of public attention, this might soon change.

A list of affiliated clinics and hospitals has become trending on Weibo under the hashtag ‘List of names of Putian Medical Group’ (#莆田系医院名单#).

Putian Medical Group

The Putian Medical Group (莆田系医院) refers to an organized group of entrepreneurs that originally come from the city of Putian, Fujian province, and who have set up private hospitals all over China. They specialize in anything varying from plastic surgery to gynecology, skin conditions or infertility clinics, but have become especially well-known for their treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

How did one Chinese city become so influential in China’s healthcare industry? The city of Putian since long has a tradition of folk medicine, but Putian’s current monopoly in China’s private healthcare system goes back to the 1980s when a man called Chen Daliang came up with a successful remedy for treating scabies. In a post-Mao era where healthcare knowledge and facilities was fairly limited, Chen trained pupils from his town to also treat all kinds of diseases with limited medical knowledge. Putian soon grew into a town of ‘medical practitioners’.

Putian’s people 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 (Week in China 2014).

In the 1990s, they also signed contracts with public hospitals to run specific departments. This system, known as the “hospital within a hospital”, was implemented all around China.

According to China Daily (2014), the Putian Medical Group sparked controversy in 1998 when bottles of medicine for STDs worth 10 RMB (1.5$) were discovered to be sold for 200 RMD (31$). A report by consumer advocate Wang Hai also questioned the Putian’s group eligibility and qualifications after healthy patients were reportedly diagnosed with STDs.

Despite controversy, the Putian group is the main player on China’s private healthcare market; of China’s 12000+ private hospitals, they hold around 8600 member hospitals – owning about 80% of all private hospitals in China.

Close ties between Baidu and Putian

The Putian Medical Group has helped Baidu make a fortune. Already in 2013, Putian’s Communist Party chief stated that Putian hospitals may have contributed 12 billion RMB (1.8 billion US$) of the total of 26 billion RMB (4 billion US$) in ad revenues reported by Baidu that year (Caixin 2015).

On the other hand, it is also because of Baidu’s top-ranking advertising space that the Putian Medical Group has been able to further expand their business and gain high profits within China’s healthcare industry. In this way, the online search engine and the medical group have a close-knit and mutually profitable relation.

According to a Caixin report from 2015, Baidu and Putian group previously had a dispute about Baidu’s “exorbitant fees”, after which 98% of Putian’s hospitals boycotted the search engine.

Baidu initially said that the boycott was a response to Baidu’s decision to block all Putian hospitals that had too many consumer complaints or were in violation of industrial regulations. But, Caixin wrote, a source at a Putian claimed that Baidu had pressured the hospitals to increase their ad spending by 10 to 20 percent annually. No matter what the source of their muddy dispute was, it was later solved and both parties continued their cooperation.

Taking advantage of patients

The qualifications of Putian-led hospitals are again questioned now that Chinese netizens expose that these clinics put commercial interests above the health of their patients. Well-known WeChat blogger Xinwenge (新闻哥) reported about the Baidu scandal on May 3, after which the blog received over 5000 messages, with many people sharing their personal experiences on how they were previously duped by healthcare providers linked to the Putian Medical Group.

Xinwenge shared a selection of the reactions of Chinese netizens, with many recounting 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.

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.

Sina News reported how a doctor was fired in 2005 for refusing to give out extremely high-priced prescriptions to patients.

Throughout the years, many patients have previously reported the Putian group for fraudulent affairs, Xinwenge writes. Although this has been covered by Chinese media, it has not changed anything about the conditions of these hospitals and their staff.

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Most patients reportedly end up in a Putian-related clinic because they saw one of their ads, either on the Internet, on the television or in newspapers.

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For now, Baidu is under investigation, and the hospital where Wei Zexi was treated has closed its doors after an investigation by the health ministry.

On Weibo, many netizens are shocked with the facts that have been exposed over the past few days: “The Wei Zexi affair has exposed different evil actors,” one netizen writes: “First, the swindlers of Putian Medical Group; second, the hospitals; third, the administrative health inspecting departments; fourth, those responsible for the Internet. In the fifth place, it is Baidu and other such platforms who are responsible.”

“There are people saying that Baidu has no fault in this, that the hospital has no fault in this, and that only the cancer is to blame,” one Weibo user says about the Wei Zexi affair: “But this is just an excuse for Baidu and the Putian medical group to continue selling people hope to incurable diseases.”

– By Manya Koetse

Featured image: by Xinwenge.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Backgrounder

Over a Third of China’s Babies Are Delivered via C-Section – The National Health Commission Wants to Change That

Fear of pain is a major reason for nonmedical cesarian deliveries on maternal request.

Manya Koetse

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Image by Sohu News

China’s National Health Commission wants to lower the nation’s high C-section rates. On Chinese social media, many women argue it should be up to the mother to decide how she wants to give birth.

In 2018 the percentage of deliveries by cesarean was 36.7% in mainland China, according to the latest Report on Women’s & Children’s Health (中国妇幼健康事业发展报告) that was launched by the National Health Commission on May 27.

This means that together with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Brazil, Egypt, and Turkey, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) now has the highest C-section rates in the world.

A World Health Organization report from 2010 estimated that 46% of Chinese babies were delivered via C-section. In 2017, another study found that this percentage was incorrect, although some urban and wealthier regions in China, such as Shanghai, did see C-section (CS) rates as a high as 68% (Black & Bhattacharya 2018, 1; McNeil 2017).

China’s CS rates have recently become a hot topic in Chinese newspapers and on social media. On May 27, the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China held a Beijing news conference in which Qin Geng (秦耕), the director, announced that more actions will be taken to encourage natural childbirth among Chinese women.

Qin Geng during the press conference on May 27.

These actions will, among others, include stricter regulation of cesarian section operations and the provision of more support and pain relief for laboring women, as well as a higher hospital income for natural births. The National Health Comission hopes to significantly reduce the number of unneccesssary C-sections without medical indication in this way (Beijing News 2019; Caijing 2019).

Since 1985, the international healthcare community has considered 10-15% to be “the ideal rate” for C-sections, of which the highest percentage are those CS deliveries with medical indications that can actually save the lives of mothers and babies.

Although the worldwide rates for CS deliveries have increased throughout the years, there is no evidence for the benefits of nonmedically indicated C-sections for women or children, according to the World Health Organization.

This is not the first time Chinese authorities try to combat the country’s high CS rates. After reports by the World Health Organization from 2010 and 2015 pointing out the potential hazards of unnecessary C-sections, there have been various state efforts to reduce the number of nonmedical cesarian surgeries.

Besides the introduction of free prenatal education classes, these efforts included monitoring public hospital CS rates and removing bonuses or cutting portions of a hospital’s income once their CS rates reached a certain threshold (e.g. 40%) (Wang 2017, 3). These government initiatives seem to have had effect: the country’s C-section growth rates have slowed down, but were not decreasing yet.

Since the Chinese government announced an end to its one-child policy in 2015, lowering cesarean sections rates has become a more urgent matter, as Chinese couples are now allowed to have a second child.

Although various studies from mainland China and beyond challenge the idea that nonmedical C-sections are less ‘safe’ than vaginal births for single deliveries, this risk changes when a woman who previously had a CS section plans another pregnancy: multiple cesarean sections are associated with additional risks including CS scar rupture and abnormal placental invasion (Biler et al 2017, 1074; Black & Bhattacharya 2018, 2; Liu et al 2015, 817).

 

Why So Many C-sections in China?

 

But why does China have such a high cesarian delivery rate at all? Since the early 1990s, mainland China saw a more dramatic rise in CS rates than, for example, the USA; from less than 10% (with only 3.4% in 1988), China went to one of the highest in the world (Hellerstein 2011; Wolf 2018, 13).

The answer to why this is, is not so straightforward and relates to socio-economic changes as well as cultural factors that come into play.

One reason is that there is a general belief in the ‘safety’ of cesarian births that influence women’s choices for a (nonmedical and planned) C-section (Black & Bhattacharya 2017, 2).

An insightful study into this matter is that of researcher Eileen Wang (2017), who found that anxiety about giving birth and fear of pain is also a major reason for nonmedical cesarian deliveries on maternal request, especially considering that only a minority of Chinese women are given any form of pain relief during labor. Besides traditional concepts, this is also because China faces a shortage of anesthetists and because obstetricians are not always well-informed to prescribe other forms of pain medication (2017, 5).

As noted by Wang, epidurals are denied to laboring women not just because anesthesiologists are too busy, but also because of various other factors: different from a scheduled C-section on their agenda, they are not always available during nighttimes and in weekends to administer anesthesia to women in labor, do not have the time to monitor a patient for hours during labor (whereas a cesarean could be done in an hour), or were not even trained to administer epidurals (2017, 5).

“Giving labor without pain: removing mom’s fear for giving birth” – image by Chinese website http://www.8bb.com/huaiyun/1381.html.

According to Wang, the concerns about labor pain result in more requests for C-sections, both before and during labor. With relatively low awareness and availability of labor pain relief methods many Chinese women simply opt for a C-section as a way to control their pain.

But there are also other factors that contribute to the relatively high rate of women requesting C-sections for nonmedical reasons. One of them is the importance placed in the astrological calendar: having a baby on that one ‘lucky day’ or within that ‘lucky year’ is considered enough reason to plan a cesarian birth for many Chinese families.

In early 2015, ahead of the Chinese New Year, many women rushed to the hospital to make sure their baby was born in the Year of the Horse (2014) as the Year of the Goat (2015) was coming up. There is an old Chinese saying that nine out of ten people born in the Year of the Goat are incomplete and will suffer from great misfortune throughout their life (“十羊九不全”).

Another factor that leads to more cesareans on maternal request relates to the existing concerns among women that vaginal delivery will affect their figure or sex life (Wang 2017, 2).

 

Responses on Chinese Social Media

 

Since the Beijing news conference of May 27, the hashtag “Reducing Unnecessary Cesarean Section Surgery” (#减少非必需剖宫产手术#) has taken off on Chinese social media.

On Weibo, the hashtag page received 340 million views at time of writing. One thread about this topic even received over 28400 comments.

“What do you call ‘unnecessary cesarian’?” one of the most popular comments said: “Isn’t it that so many women in labor choose to have a C-section because natural childbirth is too painful?”

Other commenters also called for a normalization of pain relief in labor, saying that the high percentage of C-sections lies in the fact that Chinese women lack access to “wútòng fēnmiǎn” (无痛分娩) or “painless birth,” meaning vaginal delivery with pain relief.

Some Weibo users also stress that women should have the freedom of choice on how they wish to give birth, saying: “C-section or natural should be my own choice” and “If you leave me no choice I might as well not give birth at all.”

Multiple commenters write: “The lower the C-section rate, the higher the suicides,” referring to an incident that occurred in Shaanxi in 2017 when a pregnant woman committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of the hospital after she was allegedly denied a CS delivery.

Other Chinese netizens also complain about the fact that it seems to be men who are promoting the new policies to combat the high C-section rates, writing: “Isn’t there a way to have them suffer the pain of labor instead?”

In her study, scholar Eileen Wang also argues that the lack of pain relief is one of the major issues that should be addressed by policymakers who are hoping to reduce the number of C-sections in China. Further improving the childbirth experience by, for example, integrating a midwifery model, is also essential in making natural childbirth more attractive for Chinese women, Wang argues.

For now, many hospitals in China are still offering C-section “packages”: some prices start at RMB 5800 ($840) for a C-section, other hospitals have packages that start from RMB 88,000 ($12,741) including a three-day hospital stay in a private room.

“It’s a pregnant’s woman body, so she should decide how she wants to deliver her baby,” one commenter on Weibo writes: “It should be a woman’s right to decide.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Biler, A., Ekin, A., Ozcan, A., Inan, A. H., Vural, T., & Toz, E. 2017. “Is It Safe to Have Multiple Repeat Cesarean Sections? A High Volume Tertiary Care Center Experience.” Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences 33(5): 1074–1079.

Black, Mairead & Sohinee Bhattacharya. 2018. “Cesarean Section in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong— A Safe Choice for Women and Clinicians?” PLOS Medicine 15(10): 1-3.

Caijing. 2019. “卫健委:全国剖宫产率为36.7% 积极推广分娩镇痛.” Caijing , May 27 http://economy.caijing.com.cn/20190527/4591594.shtml [5.31.19].

Hellerstein, Susan Celia. 2011. “Cesarean Delivery in China Analysis of Cesarean Deliveries Without Indication.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: 20s.

McNeil, Donald. 2017. “Study Finds Lower, but Still High, Rate of C-Sections in China.” New York Times, Jan 9 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/health/c-section-births-china.html [6.2.19].

Wang, Eileen. 2017. “Requests for Cesarean Deliveries: The Politics of Labor Pain and Pain Relief in Shanghai, China.” Social Science and Medicine (173): 1–8.

WHO. 2015. “WHO statement on caesarean section rates.” World Health Organization, April https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/maternal_perinatal_health/cs-statement/en/ [6.2.19].

Wolf, Jacqueline H. 2018. Cesarean Section – An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Featured image by Sohu News.

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What Are Weibo’s “Super Topics”?

Explaining Weibo’s “Super Topics”

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What are Weibo’s “Super Topics” (超级话题) and what makes them different from normal hashtags?

Over the past year, Weibo’s so-called “Super Topics” (超级话题) have become more popular on the social media platform as online spaces for people to connect and share information.

Weibo’s “super topic” function has been around since 2016. The function allows Weibo users to create and join interest-based content community pages that are online groups separated from the main Weibo space. One could perhaps compare these Weibo Super Groups to ‘mega-threads’ or ‘subreddits’ on Reddit.

These are the most important things to know about Weibo’s Super Topics:

 

#1 A Super Topic is Not the Same as a Hashtag

Similar to Twitter, hashtags make it possible for Weibo users to tag a topic they are addressing in their post so that their content pops up whenever other people search for that hashtag.

Different from Twitter, Weibo hashtags also have their own page where the hashtag is displayed on top, displaying how many people have viewed the hashtag, how many comments the hashtag is tagged in, and allowing users to share the hashtag page with others.

A Super Topic goes beyond the hashtag. It basically is a community account where all sort of information is shared and organized. People can ‘follow’ (关注) a Super Topic and can also ‘sign in’ (签到).

On the main page of every Super Topic page, the main subject or purpose of the super topic is briefly explained, and the number of views, followers, and posts are displayed.

A super topic-page can be created by any Weibo user and can have up to three major hosts, and ten sub-hosts. The main host(s) can decide which content will be featured as essential, they can place sticky notes, and post links to suggested topics.

 

#2 A Super Topic Is a Way to Organize Content

Super Topic pages allow hosts to organize relevant content in the way they want. Besides the comment area, the page consists of multiple tabs.

A tab right underneath the main featured information on the page, for example, shows the “sticky posts” (置顶帖) that the host(s) of the page have placed there, linking to relevant information or trending hashtag pages. Below the sticky notes, all the posts posted in the Super Topic community are displayed.

One of the most important tabs within the Super Topic page is called “essential content” (精花), which only shows the content that is manually selected by the host(s). This is often where opinion pieces, articles, official news, or photos, etc. are collected and separated from all the other posts.

Another tab is the “Hall of Fame” (名人堂), which mainly functions as a reference page. It features links to the personal Weibo pages of the super topic page host(s), links to the Weibo pages of top contributors, and shows a list of the biggest fans of the Super Topic. Who the biggest fan of the page is, is decided by the number of consecutive days a person has “checked-in” on the page.

 

#3 Super Topics Are a Place for Fans to Gather

Although a Super Topic could basically be about anything, from cities to products or hobbies, Super Topics are often created for Chinese celebrities, video games, football clubs, or TV dramas.

Through Super Topic pages, a sense of community can be created. People can be ranked for being the most contributive or for checking in daily, and comment on each other’s posts, making it a home base for many fan clubs across China.

The host(s) can also help somebody’s page (e.g. a celebrity account) grow by proposing them to others within the group.

Super Groups are ranked on Weibo based on their popularity. This also gives fans more reason to stay active in the group, making their Super Topic top ranking within their specific category (TV drama, food, photography, sports, games, etc).

What makes the Super Topic group more ‘private’ than the common Weibo area, is that people posting within the Super Topic can decide whether or not they also want their comment shared on their own Weibo page or not. If they choose not to, their comments or posts will only be visible within the Super Topic community.

 

By Manya KoetseGabi Verberg, with contributions from Boyu Xiao

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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