| Yuan Quan |
BEIJING (Xinhua) – Gong Xiaoming, an obstetrician at a public hospital in Shanghai, usually sees up to 30 outpatients a day, but when he writes an article about uterine fibroids it can easily draw tens of thousands clicks within a day on his microblog.
“I can’t believe that a doctor on Weibo can be so influential,” said Gong, 42.
By day he works at Shanghai First Maternity and Infant Hospital, but around the clock 520,000 people follow him on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog service.
Gong’s popularity started with an article he wrote in 2012, saying that many female patients were diagnosed or even prescribed treatments to deal with “cervical erosion”, which, he believes, is not a real medical condition.
Gong hoped the article could raise public awareness about over-treatment. He put it on his Weibo, and it was soon reposted 33,000 times, with over 4,000 comments. A microblogger replied, “Hail to the doctor with a conscience!”
A search for “doctor” on Sina Weibo can throw up more than 2,700 accounts, nearly half of them accredited to specific hospitals.
There are also hundreds of “nutritionists” and “medical technicians”. Followers range from thousands to millions. The most popular doctor’s Weibo account has 3.61 million “fans”, 30,000 more than that of basketball star Stephon Marbury.
As well as popularising medical science, these people are revealing the human face of their profession through social media. They speak the slang of the Internet, talk about their private lives and make fun of themselves.
A former staff member at the prestigious Peking Union Medical College Hospital, Yu Ying is a pioneer doctor in social media. She named her Weibo account “Emergency Superwoman”, using a selfie photo as her icon. She gathered a following by sharing the joys and embarrassments of working in a major hospital. However, her posts often sparked controversy by revealing problems in China’s healthcare system.
Cui Yutao, a pediatrician at a Beijing private hospital, runs a virtual clinic. All his posts are replies to questions about baby health. His patience and references to Western medicine have won nationwide acclaim. His fans call him “Super Hero”.
Dong Ning, a young pediatrician, has no time to run his own Weibo account, but he believes that the online consultations can help cut patients’ medical costs.
Dong cites the example of a pregnant woman who might have many questions during her nine-month pregnancy. In the West, she could ask her family doctor for help, but in China, she must register at various departments in a crowded hospital, sometimes choosing the wrong department in her ignorance.
“Doctors’social media accounts fill in the blanks,” said Dong.
The online clinic also helps doctors.
“Social media is a good platform offering for my observations, and lets me know the demands of my patients, as well of my staff,” said Duan Tao, president of Shanghai First Maternity & Infant Hospital. He began his Weibo and WeChat accounts, “Dr Duan Tao”, in March, and has more than 70,000 followers in total.
But they also open themselves to direct criticism. “As a president, I used to be the last one to know patients’ complaints, but now I am the first,” said Duan.
But mostly, health professionals are treated with respect.
As a young, inexperienced nutritionist at Beijing Friendship Hospital, Gu Zhongyi, 27, used to believe he had no future “as the nutrition department is usually on the hospital fringes”.
Since he began posting weight-loss and nutrition tips in 2010, he has become a celebrity with TV and online programmes inviting him to give lectures.
“I seldom mention the hospital I work for as the outpatient registration would fill up for the whole week,” Gu said.
More than 2,000 healthcare apps are available to enable users to contact doctors either by instant message or phone. Their conversations are open to other users, who can assess a doctor’s services and skills at a glance, rather than from their qualifications.
The “Spring Rain” app, which has been downloaded 32 million times, allows users to ask a doctor for advice for free, but if someone wants advice from a particular doctor, they have to pay.
“For example, a consultation with one pediatrician started at six yuan, but due to her excellent service, she was very popular, and now her rate is 89 yuan, far more than doctors with higher qualifications,” said Spring Rain branding director Xu Yanni.
According to mobile Internet market research company IIMEDIA Consultation Group, China’s mobile medical market will be worth 12.53 billion yuan by 2017.
Gong said almost 90 per cent of his patients come to him because of his online performance. “Patients give you trust, which a young doctor at a big public hospital rarely enjoys.”
China’s medical resources are extremely unbalanced, with 80 per cent of patients in rural areas but most quality hospitals are concentrated in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
The pressures on the health system and strained doctor-patient relations have resulted in increasing violence. Many patients are angry and frustrated at difficulties accessing treatment, high fees and, in some cases, doctors’ unfriendly attitudes.
Meanwhile, doctors complain about their workloads, and hospitals are often understaffed.
But the development of online services comes with a warning.
Gao Lei, a senior hematologist at a public hospital in Chongqing, says an online consultation comes with the risk of misdiagnosis. After all, observation, listening, questions and pulse-taking are fundamental diagnostic methods. “They are irreplaceable,” said Gao.
“If you want to get well, please go to a hospital,” said Duan Tao.
Sharing information online is also a risk. Duan has doubts about the security of information, because he once found someone using online data to cheat his patients.
Wang Ping, director of the Fourth Affiliated Hospital of China Medical University, points out that though online clinics can improve efficiency and relieve pressure, the process and privacy still require scrutiny and regulation – a task that China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission is now addressing.