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Chinese Health Care in Spotlight After Student's Death

FILE - Baidu's company logo is seen at its headquarters in Beijing Dec. 17, 2014. CEO Robin Li this week urged staff to put ‘values before profit’ after a government regulator ordered Baidu to cut back on ads that appear in search results and are not clearly marked.

The Chinese government has ordered Internet giant Baidu to revamp its advertising policies following the death of a young man who participated in an experimental treatment he found online. The incident has spurred greater government scrutiny of the country’s Internet search engines and calls for increased oversight of its hospitals.

Twenty-one-year-old Wei Zexi had terminal soft tissue disease, and responded to an advertisement on Baidu, the country’s largest search engine, for an experimental treatment at a Chinese hospital. Desperate for a cure, Zexi borrowed money for the treatment, and spent more than $30,000 to cover the costs; but, the cure he hoped would save his life proved false.

He accused the hospital of false advertising and of exaggerating the claims of the treatment’s effectiveness shortly before he died. The facility was a military hospital. Military-run hospitals in China are reputed to offer some of the safest and most reliable services.

Military hospitals

Alex He Jingwei, an assistant professor at the Department of Asian and Policy Studies, said many Chinese are unaware that some parts of the government's military hospitals are managed by private investors.

“Military hospitals — their operation is still a black box, and you really don’t know much about it," he said. "But what we do know, is they are military hospitals on the one hand, but many of them have privatized some departments, especially those treating STDs, and cancer departments. Many of them have been sold out to private investors.”

China’s government no longer covers the costs of many health care services in the country, and many hospitals struggle to make a profit. Chinese citizens also have few options other than scouring the Internet for information on where and how to seek treatment.

“One of the things the Baidu case illustrates is there isn’t really a proper referral system, so patients are really on their own in terms of making choices about where to go, and so hence the Internet searches, and trying to find good doctors through friends and acquaintances,” said Neil Munro, a senior lecturer in Chinese politics at Glasgow University.

Baidu had been accepting payments in exchange for higher placement in its search results. Every sponsored listing had a label that read “Promote,” but that may not have been understood by Internet users like Zexi, who were seeking treatment.

China’s government has launched an investigation of Baidu, which controls 80 percent of the Internet search market, and ordered the company to prevent the promotion of medical institutions that had not been approved by the government. It also ordered Baidu to overhaul its search results system so that it is not determined by how much advertisers have paid.

Paul Haswell, a partner at the international law firm Pinsent Masons, said the government could go even further in regulating medical advertising than the measures announced this week.

“The Chinese government if it wanted to could do anything it wants to stop Baidu from letting this happen in the future. Now I wonder if they would place some sort of ban on advertising on the Internet by medical services. It doesn’t look like that is going to be the case, but they certainly have the power to do it,” he said.

So far, regulators seem focused on China’s Internet search engines, rather than the hospitals that advertise through them. In a letter to employees, Baidu’s chief executive promised to value its users over profits; many Chinese may hope that the country’s hospitals will do the same.