Dangers stemmed, and not before time
Since free-market reforms 20 years ago that brought an end to free health care, the mainland's medical system has developed a reputation for underperforming and overcharging, prompting Beijing to unveil a blueprint in 2009 to make hospitals more accessible and affordable. It hardly seems the time yet for the launch of entrepreneurial treatments using human embryonic stem cells that remain the subject of research and clinical trials elsewhere. There must be more basic health-care objectives to be achieved than making a cash cow out of an unproven therapy. A year ago the central government added fuel to an outbreak of stem-cell projects by declaring research in the area part of a drive to make China a world leader in scientific excellence. Now Beijing has decided it is time to rein it in, suspending unauthorised clinical trials and unproven applications, ordering compliance of authorised projects with official guidelines, banning profit-seeking and halting registration of all new projects for six months. The sweep of the crackdown is one measure of the extent to which the authorities have lost control through lack of regulation. Another is the number of foreigners seeking expensive treatment after failing to get into carefully controlled trial programmes at home.
The lack of regulation means doctors can make claims about stem-cell treatments without evidence they are safe and effective. It is a dangerous situation. Without proper regulation, it could backfire on China and dent its hopes of becoming a scientific leader in this field. Development of a national programme announced a year ago, involving four new research centres and 17 other institutions, offers a sounder foundation, subject to enforcement of the highest ethics and standards. This means the elimination of abuses such as the harvesting of stem cells from fetuses aborted because of the one-child policy. That said, it is not unrealistic for the central government to hope that China can eventually lead research in this field of medicine, given its boundless resources and that experimentation is still in its early stages.
Meanwhile, more people will benefit sooner if Beijing finally keeps its pledge to scrap the 15 per cent surcharge levied by hospitals on prescribed medicines, medical services and consultation fees. Introduced 20 years ago to supplement reduced government funding, it has been exploited to increase revenue and pharmaceutical industry profits through overprescribing and the use of expensive and unnecessary drugs, along with unnecessary tests and fee gouging. This has put health care beyond the reach of the poor and even the middle class. Hospital operators have so far successfully resisted attempts to set a deadline. Happily, the Health Ministry has now promised that, starting with 300 county-level hospitals, all public hospitals will abolish the surcharge by 2015.