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Consumers should make better informed decisions
By Doug Young

A scandal involving leading search engine Baidu has been making national headlines for much of the last two weeks, but a smaller similar story this week in Shanghai showed just how bad the problem of false and misleading advertising claims has become in China. Both cases had their roots in the ultra-competitive medical industry, where hospitals, drug and device makers are constantly boasting of miracle cures and spectacular results for anyone who will listen.

In many ways this particular landscape is reminiscent of the US in the early 20th century, when similar “snake oil salesmen” peddled all kinds of dubious drugs and elixirs that claimed they could cure everything from common colds to digestive ailments. Now it seems that China is going through similar growing pains in a competitive environment where people have many choices for medical products and services.

At the same time, however, I do think that critics have been a bit one-sided in placing all the blame on Baidu or hospitals like the one here in Pudong that falsely claimed it could cure a man of his hearing loss. Perhaps I’ll get some criticism for saying this, but I do think that Chinese consumers need to take some of the responsibility for believing such inflated claims and failing to do more research before making such important medical decisions.

We’ll return to that part of the story shortly, but first I should quickly review the major facts from the Baidu case that made national headlines, and also from the smaller story here in Shanghai.

The Baidu case centers on Wei Zexi, a 21-year-old student who was diagnosed with cancer and looked for treatment options online. He found a hospital that claimed it could cure his disease, and believed those claims partly because the hospital’s name appeared high in a Baidu search result. The ad’s prominent placement was actually the result of a high price paid by the hospital, though that fact wasn’t clearly disclosed in Baidu’s search results.

The treatment turned out to be highly experimental and ultimately failed, leading Wei to complain that he’d been duped by both Baidu and the hospital before he later died of his cancer.

The more recent Shanghai case looks strikingly similar though the results were less severe. It saw a man surnamed Wang spend more than 3,000 yuan (US$460) at a Pudong hospital after reading its claims on the Internet that it could cure his hearing loss using imported medicine.

The hopeful Wang decided to give it a try, even though his own doctors had previously told him that his hearing loss was incurable. Not surprisingly, the hospital’s treatment not only didn’t cure Wang’s hearing loss, but he said it actually made the problem worse.

The new fire storm is just the latest involving Chinese hospitals, which have also landed at the center of scandals for accepting bribes from patients seeking better care, and for conspiring with scalpers to sell high registration spots to patients who don’t want to wait in long queues to see a doctor. The frustration felt by many patients is also showing up in the growing number of assaults on doctors and other medical workers over patient complaints about corruption and substandard care.

I should say here that companies like Baidu and the hospital in Wang’s case are the main culprits in these scandals, since they put profits above everything else by knowingly misleading consumers.

But I would say that, although these companies deserve some of the blame, consumers like Wei and Wang should also be held partly responsible.

That’s because such consumers have plenty of resources available to help them make such important decisions, such as online chat rooms, discussion forums and other resources where they could talk to real people in similar situations. Obviously such research takes time and effort, but it does seem worth it when you’re talking about something as important as your hearing or even your life. Relying on a search ranking or a hospital’s own claims can also be an important tool in making such a decision, but should be treated with a certain degree of skepticism.

I’m often surprised by the way many people in China will rely on such suspect claims when making important decisions on things like medical issues or buying investment products. By comparison, those same people will haggle quite fiercely when engaging in transactions in more familiar areas, such as buying a home or even simply buying vegetables at the local market. At the end of the day, it’s really the consumer’s responsibility to do enough research to make sure he’s making the best decision, and such research is now quite easy due to the convenience of finding information on the Internet.

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