A government probe into Baidu’s paid search results has concluded that the web services company has allowed misleading medical information and fake treatments to reach users. The investigation was spurred by public outcry after the death of Wei Zexi, a college student who died after undergoing an unproven cancer treatment. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is now calling on Baidu to change the way advertisements and paid search results appear, and to remove ads for medical services that “break regulations.” Xinhua enumerates the CAC’s new requirements:
The search-engine must eschew the current model of paid listings and stop ranking search results solely according to price-tags. It needs to propose and implement a new listing mechanism which places the heaviest weight on credit-worthiness of products and organizations, the investigators said.
They asked Baidu to clearly label advertisements, and feature a risk reminder; and to restrict the share of commercials in search results to less than 30 percent of each screen page.
Baidu was also ordered to streamline its commercial services regarding the medical industry. Such information featured must be pulled off should it break regulations, and medical institutions unaccredited by industry regulators should not be commercially promoted.
Wei suffered from synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer affecting the joints. He found “DC-CIK immunotherapy” in an ad at the top of Baidu search results. Wei pursued the experimental treatment at the Second Hospital of Beijing Armed Police Corps, at a reported cost of RMB 200,000 ($30,000). When the treatment failed to save his life, Wei shared the story of how Baidu “cheated” him on the Zhihu conversation “What do you think is humanity’s greatest ‘evil?'”.
No punishment for Baidu has been announced so far. Analysts predicted penalties for the search giant in interviews with the South China Morning Post last week.
Amid the angry online backlash against Baidu, some netizens are calling for Google to return to China. In a censored Weibo post archived by FreeWeibo, Renmin University professor Zhang Ming laments the current state of search in China:
When they expelled Google, they said it was for information safety. Now we must face the cons on Baidu. We’ve been deceived again and again. (May 5, 2016) [Chinese]
In an op-ed in the Global Times, Wang Wenwen reminds readers of Google’s own medical advertisement scandal. Google paid a $500 million settlement in 2011 after the U.S. Department of Justice found it had allowed Canadian pharmacies to advertise prescription medications. While the American search giant was investigated as a legal matter, the Chinese government is treating the ethical shortcomings of domestic search engines as an issue of “internet governance”:
Baidu should be held accountable for this tragedy, but it is certainly not the only stakeholder in a case like this. Several other Chinese search engines are also involved in making profits from bidding rank, a kind of paid-for advertising, without checking the authenticity of the content.
[…] Issues such as paid listings have been brewing for years, and a tragedy involving all these issues has inevitably erupted. This reflects the loopholes in China’s Internet governance.
Although China’s Internet enterprises are enjoying a boom thanks to the popularity of technology, their sense of social responsibility and corporate values did not advance with the times.
Medical scams are not just a search engine problem, but are rooted in the proliferation of private enterprises filling the gap in public options. The “Putian Clan,” a system of medical businesses based in Putian, Fujian Province, account for 80% of private hospitals in China. At Bloomberg, Adam Minter writes that the Putian Clan and similar businesses have flourished since steady cutbacks to public healthcare began in the 1970s:
The bigger problem, though, is a lack of capacity in the state-run health system. Since the late 1970s, the Chinese government has steadily reduced its contributions to public health institutions in hopes that they’ll develop their own, market-based revenue sources. But many of these clinics and hospitals — especially at the local community level — simply aren’t able to survive without government help.
The same goes for medical personnel. China’s famous “barefoot doctors,” for example, who were trained over three-to-six month periods to offer simple medical care in rural villages, have largely disappeared. Well-trained general practitioners are almost as scarce — China currently has 25,000 GPs serving a population exceeding 1.3 billion. Low pay deters many students from entering the field. So, too, does an ongoing epidemic of patient violence against physicians, driven by the widespread perception that the profession is profiteering and corrupt. [Source]
Medical journalist Michael Woodward comes to the same conclusion at his blog Chinese Medical News. The dearth not only of trustworthy medical professionals, but also of media scrutiny and mechanisms for whistleblowing, leave China with “a problem of clinical governance.” The outsourcing of military hospital departments to private enterprise is just a symptom of systemic issues.
That problem, and the frustrations of patients, has given rise to patient violence against medical professionals in recent years. Earlier this week, retired dentist Chen Zhongwei was stabbed to death by one of his former patients.