Director compares foreign medical care reform with China’s

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/8 0:43:39 Last Updated: 2016/10/8 0:58:39

Sun Shuyun stands in a hospital in London. Photo: Courtesy of Sun Shuyun

"China has the largest population in the world, and the busiest hospitals."

With the opening line, a regular day is presented at one of the most prestigious hospitals, Peking Union Medical College Hospital, where the lobby is filled with bustling crowds.

"I got here at 1:30 pm, but the receptionist said they are out of appointments, so I begged the doctor to see me, but he said he can't," one middle-aged woman said.

"We always come here, we trust this hospital," another said.

Meanwhile, doctors are so strained by the long queue of people that they are only able to give a few minutes to each patient.

This is a scene from the recent documentary by Sun Shuyun on the Chinese medical care system. Sun is the founder and art director of EOS Films, a London-based company that produces history, documentary arts and natural history programs in cooperation with different broadcasters from around the world.

In the past, she has directed and helped to make several documentary films on China, including A Year in Tibet, Dying to Leave, Half the Sky and 1421: Did China Discover America? Recently, she spent two years with her crew filming in five foreign countries, in order to compare their medical systems with China's. Sun hopes that her documentary can offer some insights into China's health care reform, which is currently high on the government's agenda. 

A year in Tibet

Sun graduated from Peking University in 1986. At that time, she had taken interest in the Tibet Autonomous Region and wanted to work there, but her family wouldn't allow her. Later, she won a scholarship to Oxford, where she studied International Relations. During her time in Oxford, she read several books about Tibet and even started learning the language.

Although she didn't get to work in Tibet directly, she began to channel her efforts towards that goal. She started to work in documentary filming. In 2005, Sun went into Tibet to film for the BBC, focusing on eight ordinary people and their lives in a bid to paint a clearer picture of the whole region.

While in Tibet, what left the deepest impression on her was that the area had undergone so many changes.

In the past, when she traveled to Tibet, she frequently saw people chanting or spinning prayer wheels on long-distance buses. Nowadays, however, "most cars have small TVs in the front and they are either playing Bollywood belly dances with sexy women or Hong Kong kung fu movies with swords waving and blood splashing everywhere," she said. On these occasions, she wonders whether she's really in Tibet.

Her film was called A Year in Tibet and became a five-part series that aired on the BBC in 2008. It has been shown in more than 40 countries, including on China Central Television.

She has received a great deal of feedback from this film. In interviews, she told media that she felt reassured that many viewers, both in China and in the West, agreed that the film reflected the true Tibet.

"Perhaps it's because the film presented the true lives of ordinary Tibetans, it's not a symbol, not a world that lacks human rights, and definitely not propaganda slogans," she said.

People stand in line in front of a hospital. Photo: CFP

Exploring other systems

Sun said she wanted to do the documentary about medical care systems because of what happened to her uncle,  a healthy 70-year-old who lived in rural Shandong Province. Nine years ago, he was the victim of a hit-and-run accident that left him crippled. He lost his ability to work but had no money to receive treatment.

At that time, rural areas in China didn't have medical insurance, and being a farmer all his life, he didn't have enough money either. He didn't want to be a burden on the family, so he disappeared quietly one day. Three days later, his family found his body in a nearby reservoir.

Sun thinks this kind of example shows that the medical care system needs to be improved. She did some research to see what Chinese people care about the most when talking about health care.

"Many people are complaining about how difficult it is to get doctors to see them at the hospital and the unequal division of medical resources," she said.

Bearing these questions in mind, Sun and the crew started filming in 2012 in five countries: Brazil, Thailand, Canada, UK and Turkey, and saw that each had its own unique approach.

In Brazil, the government and grass-roots organizations worked to lower drug prices to make them affordable for everyone. In Thailand, newly graduated medical school students are sent to rural and poor areas to work in their hospitals and clinics. In Turkey, the central government established an all-citizen medical insurance system. In UK, community and family doctors work as gatekeepers checking up on everybody's health, while in Canada, she documented how a top medical school nurtured its students.

There were also moments that shocked Sun.

In Canada, the crew followed one medical student, filming how her day went. She spent a lot of time learning the art of communicating with the patient's family. There was a scene where the doctors came upon a 2-year-old who was beyond rescue. During the process, doctors went back and forth to communicate with the patient's parents at least four times to update them.

When Sun filmed a Chinese crew later on, the contrast was stark. The doctor spent more than 10 hours treating this patient, but when the operation was over and the family rushed to ask questions, the doctor acted impatiently and simply walked off saying, "I'll let you know if there are problems."

"That came as a shock to me," Sun said. "They've already done so much, why can't they go a bit further and say, 'The patient's fine'?"

The documentary is being released at a time when the Chinese government is pushing for more reform. On July 22, the World Bank, WHO and three official Chinese ministries released a report on medical reform in China, and used a clip of Sun's documentary at the press conference.

The report declared that if China doesn't push for a medical system that relies on local and community centers, the funds spent on the medical system will rise sharply in the future.

Currently, the Chinese public is already seeing the shortcomings of the medical system. Many have experienced standing in line for more than four hours at the hospital and getting four minutes of diagnosis. Furthermore, the doctor-patient relationship is becoming increasingly tense, with more violent acts reported on the news. Sun hopes her documentary on other countries' experience can provide some insight.

The six-part documentary People's Health will be aired on TV stations across China soon.

"We've seen that the Chinese government is willing to reform and that's a good thing, before it's too late," she said.

Newspaper headline: A healthy perspective

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