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Stampede for healthcare in China leaves many untreated

By Emily Chang, CNN
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Chinese struggle for care
  • Average life expectancy in China is 73.47 years
  • Patients have to line up and get tickets to see doctors
  • Hospital official: Some delay seeking care since they don't understand system
  • Beijing last year said it would invest $130 billion to improve health care
  • China
  • Beijing
  • Health Care Issues

Beijing, China (CNN) -- Before dawn, the line of sick people and their families snakes around Peking Union Medical Hospital. Some have been standing in line for days. Many have traveled from faraway provinces just to get an appointment with a specialist at one of the best hospitals in the country.

This is how difficult it can be to see the right doctor in China. Those who can afford it hire scalpers to stand in line for them, and pay up to 20 times the price of a normal doctor's visit. Those who cannot afford it, or don't know any better, just line up and wait.

Zhu Xiangyang, 28, is a determined son who traveled about 800 miles from Zhejiang province in Southern China to find a doctor for his ailing father. He has been waiting in line for three days.

"We want him to get cured, so we're trying to get the best treatment," Zhu said. "And this is the best hospital in the country."

When the hospital doors open, it's a mad dash -- more like a stampede -- to get inside. Security guards block our news cameras amid the chaos.

Many prospective patients are turned away; there simply aren't enough doctors. But Zhu is lucky. He lined up early enough to obtain a ticket saying he is fifth in line to see one of the best thoracic surgeons in China.

"This doctor is quite prominent," Zhu said, as he holds his number tightly. "Many of the patients here were treated by her and say she's a good person."

He takes the good news across the street where his father, Zhu Jiangwa, is resting at a local hotel.

"I just keep coughing," he said. "Our local hospital isn't good enough, but my family can't lose me, so I chose to come here."

Rather than being angry about how difficult it is to get care, the Zhu family seems more resigned.

"China has many people," the son said.

"This is just the situation here," his sister, Zhu Xianghong, added.

It is no secret health care in China is seriously limited. According to the CIA World Factbook 2009 statistics, the average life expectancy in China is 73.47 years old, compared to 78.11 in the U.S. and 82.12 in Japan.

While basic care, like vaccinations, is easily accessible in China, higher-level treatment can be difficult to get, especially in rural areas.

The Chinese government announced last year it would invest about $130 billion dollars to improve the health care system. The plan calls for expanding health insurance coverage, improving access to care and overhauling hospitals, but doctors say it will take years to reform.

"Getting to see a specialist can be a challenge," said Dr. Randy Jernejcic, Chief Medical Officer at Beijing United Family Hospital. "And if you get a ticket, good, but you may never see that physician for a follow-up again."

Jernejcic said it was common for Chinese people to put off going to the doctor because they don't trust the medical system, or don't understand how to get access to care.

"A lot of people, they just won't go to the doctor for a variety of things," he said. By the time people get to the doctor, he said, "often times, it may be too late to give good care."

Even if patients do seek care, they don't necessarily understand the process.

"They have nobody to help them navigate," Jernejcic said. "So they don't know where to turn to frequently. So it's one thing to be able to get in, but it's another thing to know where you need to get into."

The Zhu family is a textbook case.

"We went to the wrong hospital at first," Zhu Xiangyang said. "We wasted a lot of time."

When he finally got to see a doctor, Zhu's father was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer and sent to Xuanwu Hospital across town for chemotherapy treatment.

"It has spread to both his lungs, to his lymph nodes and his bones," Zhu said. "But we're hoping for the best."

On top of that, his family with have to bear the cost of most of his medical care. Their insurance will cover some $5,000. But a full course of treatment will cost tens of thousands of dollars more.