As China becomes wealthier, more and more well-to-do patients are going abroad to seek the finest medication and treatment money can buy. Some even participate in clinical trials to gain access to the latest potentially-lifesaving medicines. Experts say China's poor hospital service and inefficient drugs approval system are contributing to this trend.
Three years ago, Li Minglei, a Beijing bone doctor, was diagnosed with lung cancer.
His physician told him he had entered stage 4, the terminal stage, during which surgery is no longer effective.
Li was told he could only use chemotherapy to control his disease, and soon he was so weak that he wasn't able to turn over in bed. His doctor told him he had only six months to live.
In despair, Li pursued a different option. He and his wife flew to the US to get treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, a prestigious cancer research hospital. Doctors there prescribed him targeted drugs which were unavailable in China back then and recommended he have surgery after the drugs take effect.
Today, Li has almost recovered, and he often jogs along the banks of Charles River in Boston. He will soon be able to return to China and resume work, although he will need to return to the hospital every three months for regular checks.
Li is among a growing number of Chinese who have gone abroad for treatment after receiving a terminal diagnosis.
Cash for cures
In the past few years, many US hospitals have seen an exponential increase in the number of Chinese patients paying for treatment. Massachusetts General Hospital, which has won the top spot on US News & World Report's annual list of the US's best hospitals, for example, treated only 10 Chinese patients annually just a few years ago. By 2014, the number it was treating had grown to 100, Boston Globe reported.
The Mayo Clinic, a hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, has also seen a flood of Chinese medical tourists arriving in its wards.
"China is the country where we see the greatest growth… Mayo Clinic attracted 400 Chinese in 2014 compared to 200 in 2013, 100 in 2010 and 30 in 2012," the organization's international office medical director Mikel Prieto told the International Medical Travel Journal.
Chinese people are traveling to the other side of the world for the best treatment their money can buy. A 2014 study by the China Cancer Center shows that the 5-year survival rate for Chinese cancer patients was 30.9 percent. This is significantly lower than the rate in the US, which is 65.9 percent.
While some hospitals in major Chinese cities boast first-rate medical care, patients, even wealthier ones, often need to pull strings to get access to these resources.
A better overall experience is another reason wealthy Chinese patients favor foreign hospitals. "Wealthier Chinese people go abroad because Chinese hospitals generally provide a poorer experience," Eric Chong, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Asclepius Hospital Management, told the Global Times on Sunday.
In China, patients often have to wait hours to see a doctor. But at the end of their wait the doctors usually only have a few minutes to spend on a patient, and often with other patients waiting in the same room.
Chinese hospitals are categorized into three tiers, but most patients cram into the top tier hospitals, leaving doctors in these hospitals busy and overworked. In some hospitals, each doctor needs to see up to 100 patients each day.
To tap into this trend, in 2010 Cai Qiang founded Saint Lucia, a Beijing-based consultancy on overseas care which introduces patients to foreign healthcare.
"Lots of Chinese can afford imported BMWs and Hermes bags. They send their children to study abroad. I thought overseas medical care had to be in great demand in the future," Cai told the Global Times.
Cai moved to Australia in 2001. Before that, he had a son who was born in Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province. His wife gave birth to their daughter in Sydney. The two countries' different methods of child delivery and treatment of newborn babies left a mark on Cai.
"When my daughter was born in Sydney, the hospital even lent me a camera to take photographs of my newborn baby. It suddenly occurred to me that hospitals could provide such detailed, human-oriented services," he said.