Scarce medical resources give rise to ‘cancer hotels’ around urban hospitals

By Chen Heying Source:Global Times Published: 2015-2-11 20:23:01

A cancer patient rests outside a hotel near the Hunan Cancer Hospital in Changsha in 2013. Photo: CFP



In a 7-square-meter room, Li Bing (pseudonym), a lung cancer sufferer in his 50s, reclined on a quilt and curled up on a bed. He and his wife came from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to pursue "better treatment" in Beijing.

Li squinted weakly at his wife when she told the Global Times that they've been in the rented room for over a week, waiting for a bed in the Cancer Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

They pay 70 yuan ($11) each day for the small room. "Although in our room there is only a bed and a table, it is enough. The three-bedroom house is equipped with heating, cooking utensils and bathroom facilities. I cannot ask for more. What I worry about is when he will [begin treatment]," she said.

"Even though we have asked for a doctor we knew on February 2 to help arrange a bed, we have still had to wait," she said.

"It is not called 'waiting' if they have only been staying outside the hospital for several days. In fact, they'll have to wait for one or two months before getting a hospital bed," an anonymous radiation therapy technologist at the hospital, told the Global Times.

About 700 patients line up for a bed at the hospital every week, but with the limited number of hospital beds, most of them stay in motels, which some have dubbed "cancer hotels," the Xinhua News Agency reported.

"Cancer hotels" clustered around well known cancer hospitals across China reflect a persistently uneven distribution of medical resources, the waste of those resources and the undervaluing of the medical skills of doctors in less-developed regions, experts said.

Scarce beds

The owner of a supermarket nearby the hospital estimated that half of the houses in the surrounding residential community for medical staff are rented out to patients.

"Some of the tenants wait for a hospital bed, while others give up and choose to use outpatient services on a day-to-day basis," a realtor surnamed Liang told the Global Times, adding that the daily rental ranges from 50 to about 150 yuan.

An outpatient surnamed Lü from Hebei Province suffering from cervical cancer comes to receive radiation therapy every day, renting a basement room for 1,100 yuan a month.

"As a Hebei resident, my healthcare is funded by Hebei government with barely any coverage for treatment in Beijing. And most outpatient services are excluded from the insurance system. However, even though I stopped trying to get a bed and reimbursement for medical expenses, I still had to wait about 20 days to start radiation therapy," she said.

"The treatment has already cost me much, so I have to minimize my rent," she explained.

China's cancer morbidity rate has continued to rise in recent years, with the country now accounting for one-fourth of global deaths from cancers, the World Health Organization said on February 4, World Cancer Day, adding that 2.2 million people in China die from cancer each year.

Experts blame severe environmental pollution, an unhealthy diet and an aging society as the major reasons for the high incidence of cancer in China.

The average medical cost for each cancer patient is between 100,000 yuan to 300,000 yuan, the Beijing Business Today reported.

A forecast by the International Agency on Research for Cancer said that, without effective measures, the incidence and death toll for cancers in China will reach 4 million and 3 million respectively in 2020, and 5 million and 3.5 million in 2030, Xinhua said.

It's not just Beijing feeling the pinch. With the rise in cancer patients, specialists and beds in areas such as Shanghai, Henan and Zhejiang provinces have become increasingly scarce.

Zhang Yuping (pseudonym), 60, traveled from Wuxi, in Jiangsu Province in January to receive chemotherapy at Jiangsu Cancer Hospital in Nanjing for her uterine cancer, Nanjing-based Modern Express reported.

"Due to the demand for hospital beds, I was discharged after being treated for three days," Zhang said. Renting a room in a nearby hotel which is full of cancer patients, she goes to the hospital to get chemotherapy every morning with her husband.

No short-term cures

Dong Keyong, dean of the public administration and policy school of the Renmin University, blamed the imbalance of medical resources for the rise of "cancer hotels."

About 80 percent of China's medical resources are concentrated in large cities, with 30 percent of the resources in these cities going to major hospitals, Guangzhou Daily reported.

"Health authorities have to create incentives to attract more doctors to work in less-developed cities, which is the key to balancing resources," Dong told the Global Times.

The National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) established a standardized training system in 2014 for resident doctors nationwide, which will increase doctors' mobility by offering a nationally recognized certification, and pave the way for establishing a system that will encourage patients to receive diagnosis and treatment locally.

The NHFPC announced on Tuesday that 55,000 people had been trained by the end of 2014 with the central government investing more than 3 billion yuan in the project.

"[Also,] many incurable patients are wasting limited medical resources," said Cui Xiaobo, a professor of Capital Medical University.

"It is better for terminally ill patients to choose palliative care, which can relieve physical and emotional pain without futilely [trying to] rescue them," Cui said. However, palliative care is not covered by China's healthcare system, which discourages desperate patients and their relatives from using it, Cui noted.

About 60 countries including the UK, the US, Canada and Japan, promote palliative care options, news portal caixin.com reported in January.

Liu Duanqi, an oncology professor at The Military General Hospital of Beijing, added that "patients don't need to swarm to Beijing as a last resort. Many hospitals in provincial cities also boast experienced or even better doctors."

Liu cited nasopharyngeal cancer as an example, which has more patients in the southern China than in the north. "Thus, local doctors know more about the disease than those in Beijing," he explained.

Also, there is no need for patients to blindly seek radiotherapy in Beijing, as it is a standard treatment requiring little medical expertise, said Zhou Zijun, a public health expert with Peking University.

"As long as local hospitals are equipped with those facilities, why do they have to rent a room in Beijing?" Zhou said.
Newspaper headline: Checking out


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