China's health regulator looks into allegation cancer doctor gave pricier, substandard treatment and let patient die prematurely

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China’s top health regulator is investigating allegations an oncologist at a leading Shanghai hospital intentionally used more expensive, substandard treatment options for a cancer patient that led to his early death.

Lu Wei, an expert on gastrointestinal cancer at Shanghai’s Xinhua Hospital, has been under investigation after accusations made by another oncologist in Beijing, said the hospital on Tuesday.

The hospital is working with the National Health Commission in a probe into claims of cancer patients’ “losing both money and life”, allegedly due to their doctors’ greed and lack of professional knowledge after Zhang Yu from the Beijing-based Peking University Third Hospital made the dramatic accusations online, a senior publicity official from Lu’s hospital told the South China Morning Post.

“We have been very serious about the case and doctor Lu has been suspended from duty to cooperate with the investigation,” said an official surnamed Shi from Xinhua Hospital.

Zhang Yu said that he had come across a case where a patient received poor treatment that not only pushed up medical costs but also caused them physical pain and early death.

On Monday the National Health Commission said in a statement that it had opened an inquiry into Zhang’s claims and said it would “never tolerate” such misconduct.

Over 3 million Chinese people died of cancer last year while 4.57 million new cancer patients were diagnosed in China. Globally 9.96 million people died of cancer last year in total, according to the latest data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

China accounts for nearly 24 per cent of total new global cases and 30 per cent of deaths, yet China’s population is equivalent to about 18 per cent of the total world population.

Although most of the cases in China were discovered at an advanced stage, Zhang blamed the high death rate partly on improper therapies that he claimed in some cases were deliberately designed by doctors to get more commission payments.

In a series of posts on Zhihu, China’s Quora-like social media platform, since early this month, he has specifically condemned a Shanghai-based oncologist named Lu Wei, whose treatment of one of his cancer patients allegedly cost the family more than 10 times what standard treatments should, and allegedly caused the patient to die earlier than normally expected.

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He said Lu was not the only case he knew of. Over the past year, he said had come across more than 100 cases in dozens of hospitals across China where cancer patients received “inappropriate or simply wrong” treatment.

The unnamed patient, who suffered from advanced stomach cancer, turned to Zhang in October last year with an inquiry, Zhang said.

Prior to that, he had been treated by Lu, a cancer specialist at Xinhua Hospital in Shanghai, since July, but the expensive treatment options, including a controversial technique called NeuroKinetic Therapy that was banned from clinical use and excluded from the public health insurance, turned out to be ineffective and left his family in debt, he said.

Lu has not replied to the Post’s request for comment.

However, Lu has been removed from the list of experts at both the hospital’s website and its online appointment platform.

From the patient’s medical records and a handwritten chemotherapy note by Lu, Zhang said the patient was given expensive tests and medicine that he believed were “totally ineffective”. The man died at the beginning of this year.

The man’s daughter, who went by the nickname “Rong San Sui Ya” on Zhihu, has confirmed Zhang’s claims.

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“I had taken my father to doctors around the country before getting him treated at the Xinhua Hospital in Shanghai. It was less than half a year later that he passed away. We spent all our savings and are now heavily in debt,” she wrote in a post earlier this month.  

Several specialists invited by Ding Xiang Yuan, a respected online community for healthcare professionals, to discuss the case later also said most of Lu’s options were unreasonable.

“I only named Lu not because there are no other cases – in fact, I think there are worse ones – but because I don’t have enough evidence and I’m under great pressure. I have my job and family... The more doctors I offend the bigger the pressure is,” Zhang wrote in his latest post over the weekend.

The Post has approached both Zhang and Rong San Sui Ya for comment, but Zhang said he was “not allowed to comment”, while the other did not respond.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.