BEIJING, China – China’s government health care regulator on Thursday ordered hospitals not to outsource medical services or promote false advertising amid a public outcry over the death of a young man who received expensive but ineffective treatments for a rare form of cancer.
The order by the National Health and Family Planning Commission followed heavy publicity of 21-year-old Wei Zexi’s death after being treated at a Beijing hospital affiliated with the national paramilitary police force.
Chinese media reports said the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police Corps had outsourced the administration of its oncology department to a private company which allegedly sought profits by offering ineffective, unnecessary or unapproved medical treatments.
Before his death on April 12, Wei said in an online post that he came across the hospital because it was listed at the top in his search for cancer treatment on China’s dominant search engine, Baidu, raising questions as to whether Baidu had gone too far in extending its pay-for-listing practice to medical services.
Baidu inserts only the phrase “promoted” in small print to identify paid search results. It has already been criticized earlier this year for selling rights to administer online forums on medical issues to commercial companies, which can promote their services while deleting unflattering posts from real patients.
On Monday, the Cyberspace Administration of China announced it was investigating the company, which saw its stock price drop the next day on the Nasdaq index. Baidu, which enjoys a near monopoly on search in China due to the government’s blocking of Google, has also been heavily criticized online and in Chinese state media for not thoroughly investigating companies whose money it takes to promote their search results.
Baidu said in a statement Sunday that it was co-operating with investigators and would support the Wei family’s quest for justice if the hospital was found to be at fault.
Wei wrote that in his search for a possible cure for his cancer, he had trusted Baidu’s search results and the hospital, which carries the highest official rating for its medical facilities from the Chinese authorities. Wei reportedly suffered from a rare form of soft tissue cancer called synovial sarcoma. It wasn’t clear whether he knew about the private company’s role in his treatment.
Wei wrote that the family spent more than 200,000 yuan ($30,750) on immunotherapy treatment to no avail.
In its statement, the government’s commission said immunotherapy has not been approved for clinical use in China and can only be applied on an experimental basis. It ordered an end to the practice of outsourcing the administration of medical departments as well as the clinical application of unapproved therapies.
The Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police Corps has reportedly suspended services in the wake of the controversy. Calls to the hospital rang unanswered Thursday.