Saint Cyr-ly yours

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-6 19:03:01

Dr Richard Saint Cyr of Beijing UFH. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Dr Richard Saint Cyr of Beijing UFH. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Richard Saint Cyr is tired of writing about pollution on his blog.

"What more can I say? Everyone knows it's bad," he said of Beijing's year-round haze.

Saint Cyr, 45, is the closest Beijing has to a foreign celebrity doctor. The physician of family medicine at Chaoyang district private hospital United Family Healthcare (UFH) has kept a blog for four years advising people on how to lead healthy lives in Beijing.

He scrolls his smartphone screen to show his most popular posts at

"Pollution, pollution, masks, pollution," he reels off. "That's what people care most about."

Since coming to Beijing seven years ago as a trailing spouse, Saint Cyr has learned the expat community is most concerned about air pollution and food safety. Both topics therefore dominate his blog.

But Saint Cyr doesn't only write about health, with his blog also including posts about nutrition and raising children in Beijing.

Blogging to success

Before coming to China, Saint Cyr lived in Sonoma county in the San Francisco Bay area, where he also practiced as a family medicine doctor.

His wife, a Beijing-born American, received an offer to work in Beijing in 2006. Saint Cyr followed her over and found work at the International SOS clinic.

Saint Cyr found working in China more similar than he expected; people also suffered chronic diseases and there were seasonal spikes in epidemics common in the US.

But Saint Cyr noticed there were fewer accessible medical resources for people in China.

It was unlike the US, where there are consumer reports, the government-run Center of Disease Control website and Mayo Clinic, a medical research group that shares information online from more than 3,000 physicians.

"I keep asking my Chinese patients where they get their health information from and I get little feedback," he said.

Saint Cyr launched his blog in summer of 2009. His first posts were simple, providing tips on eating healthy, exercising and coping with toxic air and poor quality tap water.

His blog attracted more than 8,000 hits daily, which encouraged him to write more. Over the past four years, he has written more than 600 posts about pollution, masks, pregnancy, infant milk formula and many other topics.

Saint Cyr's online reputation even paved the way for his employment at UFH, where hospital administrators were impressed by his standing in the community. 

Earning community trust

However, being a blogger about a subject as important as healthcare isn't easy. There is an enormous amount of skepticism in the community, Saint Cyr has found, explaining that he has to work hard to become a figure people can trust when it comes to advice on healthcare.

"Recently, the New Zealand [Fonterra] milk formula scandal broke out," he said. "A lot of people aren't going to trust that [brand]. It takes years before trust can be rebuilt."

Saint Cyr feels he has a responsibility to give sage advice backed by science.

"This is the idea of evidence-based medicine. You have to be very careful, so on my blog I'll specifically quote medical articles," he said.

 Nevertheless, Saint Cyr deals with unfamiliar cases from time to time. In January when pollution peaked at its worst on record, he posted his reviews of various masks.

"You don't learn this kind of stuff in medical school," he said.

Saint Cyr scoured medical journals for data about what levels of pollution are safe for certain age groups and found ratings from independent consumer groups.

Finally, he tried out masks himself to provide the best diagnosis.

There was a fine ethical line to walk to avoid appearing as a pundit-for-hire.

His glowing review of one type of mask caused sales to surge dramatically, leading rival mask makers to request favorable reviews for payment.

But Saint Cyr isn't interested in becoming a white-coated salesman.

"I only did [the tests] because I was interested in them. Every once in a while I'll do them," he said. "It is exhausting … and I do have to be responsible for what I write."

Aside from his medical credentials, Saint Cyr's blog received another credibility boost recently when it received the seal of approval from international NGO Hon Code, which rates blogs' trustworthiness. 

Expanding beyond expats 

Two years after Saint Cyr launched his blog, he created a Sina Weibo account in a bid to connect with Chinese in cyberspace.

Beijing's expat community is still relatively small, he noted, saying the scope of health concern is often limited to hazards posed by the city's air and water.

Saint Cyr has found that foreigners and Chinese tend to worry about the same issues, although this isn't always obvious because Chinese aren't as aware of certain health risks.

"Over the last few years, expats were more aware than the local Chinese about the pollution because they were getting their information from the US embassy's Twitter feed. But for the rest in China, the Twitter feed was blocked … and the local numbers were different back then," he said.

"Chinese people didn't realize just how bad the air was until this year."

Saint Cyr said everyone deserves to know about environmental health risks. He started posting air quality readings on his Weibo feed, some in Chinese although most in English.

In a further pivot to the Chinese community, Saint Cyr has been less prolific with his blog posts and more active on Weibo because the latter is "more interactive."

Naturally, he attracts his share of criticism every time he promotes a mask or air purifier. But Saint Cyr maintains his claims are always backed up by medical journals or personal experience.

The point of his blog is not to scare people away from Beijing, but rather to teach them how to lead healthy lives in an often unhealthy environment, he said.

"I want to prove that even though the living situation is bad, people can still cope with it and be optimistic," he said.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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