BEIJING: This August, Cai Zhe, 14, discovered a lump on his collarbone. A check-up confirmed his worst fears: He was diagnosed with final-stage lymphoma.
After two rounds of chemotherapy in Wuhan city in central Hubei province, his entire family decided to uproot themselves to Beijing to seek treatment for Cai Zhe. To cut costs, they rented a US$7-a-night room in one of the so-called ‘cancer hotels’ in Beijing. It’s just a short walk away from one of China’s top cancer hospitals.
The room where Mdm Yang Fengzhi and her cancer-stricken son Cai Zhe are putting up in in one of the cancer hotels as they seek medical help in Beijing. (Photo: Jeremy Koh)
Cai declined to speak to us for this story, but his mother Yang Fengzhi explained why they decided to come to Beijing.
She said: "Everyone says that Beijing has the best doctors. In this hotel, there are people from across the country, from Guizhou, Fujian, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia. We all came here.”
The family had borrowed money from relatives and friends. But it’s still far from enough.
Holding back her tears, Mdm Yang said: “I don't know what to do now. My husband has to go home this afternoon, because how else can he get money? Even one day costs a lot here. We’ve been here three days and we’ve spent more than US$2,200, and we don’t have much left.”
State health insurance reaches almost all of China’s 1.4 billion people, but coverage is basic. This means that patients might have to foot almost half the bill, and 'cancer hotels' have sprung up near hospitals across the country to house some of the more than three million people diagnosed with cancer in China every year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the cancer hotels are a response to weaknesses in China's healthcare system, where most patients do not have affordable access to good quality cancer treatment close to where they live.
Dr Bernhard Schwartlander, WHO's Representative in China, said: “Many people in the very poor areas when they are ill, when they don’t feel well, of course they’ll do everything they can to actually go to a place where they think they can get the treatment they need. Therefore many people travel from far away to the primary cities like Shanghai and Beijing to seek the care they need.”
But arriving in the big cities may just be the beginning of another nightmare for the patients and their families.
Official data shows that up to 44 per cent of families pushed into poverty were impoverished by illness.
The WHO said it’s working with the Chinese government to expand health insurance coverage to cover cancer and other costly illnesses.
Dr Schwartlander said: “We do know that there are currently a lot of treatments that are not easily available to the people because they’re simply too expensive, out of pocket expenditure is still very high and very often are devastating for the families because they’re catastrophic in terms of their family income.”
That could certainly end up being the case for Mdm Yang and her family, and millions of other patients and their anxious families across the country.