The lengths to which wealthy mainlanders will go to provide safe imported food or high-quality overseas education to their families comes as no surprise to Cai Qiang. What amazes him is that many of those same people have no idea how to access top-notch medical care when they or their loved ones fall ill. As the general manager of Saint Lucia Consulting, Cai, a 48-year-old former university teacher, has found a business opportunity that is both financially rewarding and personally fulfilling: helping people in China seek treatment abroad.
Who are your clients?
At the beginning, most of our clients were at the end of their tether - those who had sought every possible treatment on the mainland, such as a boy who had a brain tumour removed. His doctor said he could either receive radiation therapy and risk harming his ability to learn, or he could receive no therapy and risk having a relapse. His mother is a real estate developer in Shanxi , and she could not accept either scenario. Eventually she came to us and we arranged for him to receive proton therapy for three months at Massachusetts General Hospital [in Boston], because there was no such treatment available in China. Nowadays, more and more patients come to us when they are diagnosed with cancer. They are affluent and of high social standing. They went to the top doctors in China, but they want to see the best doctors in the world to get the best results. Another reason [they come to us] is because they lack confidence in hospitals or doctors on the mainland, partly because of negative media coverage of the medical sector there, such as doctors receiving kickbacks or prescribing unnecessary drugs.
Tell us about yourself and why you are in this business.
I studied physics at college and then stayed at my university in Zhengzhou, Henan, to be a teacher. Then, in 1998, I started a business to help people apply to study abroad. This business opened in 2010 after I realised that so few wealthy people were aware they could seek better medical treatment abroad. My objective was to help 1,000 people to seek treatment abroad within 10 years.
Is this business of helping people get medical treatment in the US new in China?
Yes, it's still in the very early stages in China. Out of 100 potential clients - people who have more than 10 million yuan worth of assets - only four or five are aware that they have the option of seeking treatment at overseas hospitals. They are used to going to their friends and asking for recommendations about which hospitals or doctors they should go to, and that's it. It's a very hard habit to break.
How exactly does it work?
The process is quite easy for the patients. All they have to do is give us all of their medical history and medical-examination results, like MRIs [magnetic resonance imaging] and CT [computed tomography] scans or pathological biopsy results. We will sort out a medical-history summary in Chinese for the patient to confirm. Then we translate the confirmed history into English and send it to the hospital, find the right doctor and make an appointment. When the client goes abroad, we have staff pick him up at the airport and then accompany him to the hospital. We fill out all of the registration forms and are responsible for making all of the appointments for necessary tests, and we help communicate with the doctor if the patient has any further questions. All the patient has to do is show up and pay.
Does it take long to see a specialist in the United States?
If the client has a passport we can arrange to see a specialist within three weeks. For some who already have a visa, the wait may be shortened to two weeks. We promise clients they won't wait for more than a month.
How long do patients need to stay?
On average, a client stays there for three months, but some for only a couple of days because the doctors say there is nothing they can do.
Is it expensive to seek medical treatment in the US?
We charge 68,000 yuan (HK$83,800) for all of our services, and patients pay the hospital bills directly to the hospital. We also offer a long-distance consultation service without patients being there [in the US], and that costs 18,000 yuan. Sometimes the patients are too sick or old or want a second opinion; we recommend they use this service. It is expensive to receive medical treatment in the US, but not that expensive. Some clients ask me: Will 5 million yuan be enough, or 10 million? But the fact is that most clients pay US$100,000-$150,000. Sometimes it is cheaper than going from hospital to hospital in China. It is safe to say that at least 80 per cent of our clients have received unnecessary treatment or taken useless but expensive drugs before coming to us.
Does going to the US for treatment guarantee a satisfactory result?
I should say 85 per cent of clients are happy because it has to do with the results of the consultation. Two of our clients died in the US; one was a child and the other was a middle-aged man. We have a patient who was told his melanoma was benign and was refused further tests no matter what he said. The patient was very upset, so we made an appointment with another doctor, and the second doctor said the same thing. Another client was very, very angry when he was told that doctors refused to remove a tumour on his liver and said the best option for him was to return to China and get a liver transplant. Eventually he came to his senses and felt the doctor was being responsible because if he had had other operations , he would not have been able to receive a liver transplant.
What are the risks for patients?
We want clients to be reasonable. They should adjust their expectations and not assume that their illness will definitely be cured at a top hospital. They should be aware of all the risks. Second, they should respect the doctors and be understanding. They pay to enjoy a medical service but nothing more. The mindset of "customer is god" won't work there. Then they should be financially secure enough to seek treatment in the US.
Cai spoke to Zhuang Pinghui