EYESHENZHEN  /   Opinion

For the rest of our lives

Writer: Winton Dong  | Editor: Jane Chen  | From:  | Updated: 2018-11-05

Former CCTV anchorman Li Yong died at the age of 50 in the United States after a 17-month-battle against cancer, his wife revealed in a statement on her official Sina Weibo account Oct. 29.

Li’s sudden death astonished the whole country since there had been no previous reports about his health condition. It has also been revealed that more and more rich Chinese cancer patients are flocking to developed countries, especially the United States, for medical treatment.

There are many factors that contribute to Chinese cancer patients’ preference for medical services in the States.

Firstly, survival rate is much higher in the United States. The incidence of cancer has been ever increasing in China in recent years. According to statistics, China recorded 3.8 million and 4.29 million cancer patients in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The average five-year survival rate of all cancer patients in China is only 25 percent. However, the same average survival measure in the United States is now at 67 percent. The rates for melanoma, prostate cancer and lymphoma are even as high as 98 percent in the States.

Secondly, multi-disciplinary treatment (MDT) is more popular in the United States. MDT means doctors from different departments will form a medical board and give a comprehensive diagnosis together. Most cancer patients will have a combination of treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone therapy and stem cell transplant. So when a patient needs treatment for cancer, it is normal for him or her to feel overwhelmed and confused.

MDT is seldom used in Chinese hospitals because of personnel shortages. A lot of Chinese patients joke that the country’s cancer treatment is a “lottery,” meaning if you are lucky enough, you will get a good doctor to keep you alive; otherwise, you could get an unqualified doctor who will cure you to an early death. MDT, to some extent, can avoid random and unsuitable treatments. For example, a Chinese prostate cancer patient who went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center for medical advice recalled that American doctors from the urination, anorectal and cosmetics departments took 11 hours to perform a multi-disciplinary operation on him. Such a complicated surgery is virtually impossible in China. The patient paid a total of 1.3 million yuan (US$188,000) for the operation and said it was worth it.

Thirdly, patients have more options in the United States when it comes to medicine. Almost all medicines used by Chinese hospitals to fight cancer are those that were on the U.S. market before 2011. Many new and more efficient drugs developed in recent years, such as programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1), can only be purchased through special channels in China. PD-1 is a protein found on T cells (a type of immune cell) that helps keep the body’s immune responses in check. When this protein is blocked, the brakes on the immune system are released and the ability of T cells to kill cancer cells increases. Despite the fact that the price of a dose of PD-1 can be as high as 30,000 yuan, it still offers a ray of hope for rich patients.

Finally, patients think they are better protected and respected in the United States. On average, a Chinese doctor has to see 80-100 patients every working day, thus making the diagnosis time for each patient less than 5 minutes, and sometimes even as short as 30 seconds. What can a doctor do in half a minute? However, the diagnosis time for a cancer patient can last up to 1.5 hours in the United States. A Chinese patient said that when she left a U.S. hospital in a wheelchair after her operation, a nurse rushed to her and offered her a pillow to use as cushion, for fear that the safety belt on the wheelchair might hurt her wound. Such attention to detail made her think that U.S. hospitals really care about the health of their patients.

Given the huge population base of China and the high costs in the United States, only a very small portion of Chinese are financially capable of going abroad for medical treatments. It is estimated that about 3,000 Chinese went to the United States for medical assistance in 2017, more than 70 percent of which were cancer patients. Insiders have said that, with the improvement of living standards in China, that figure will continue to increase in the coming years.

(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)