Only three months ago, Baidu was railroaded by commentators for selling its hemophilia support forum to a medical consultancy in Xi’an, Shaanxi province.
Now its ad policy may have resulted in a premature death.
Wei Zexi, a 21-year-old student of computer science at Xidian University in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, perished when his cancer was treated with a fake “cutting-edge therapy” advertised by Baidu.
‘20 More Years’
Wei’s dreams of studying abroad for his graduate degree came to an end last month when he succumbed to synovial sarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissue.
There is no known cure for synovial sarcoma, and cancer specialists in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou all told the family there was no hope. But as Wei was an only child, his parents were determined to try anything to cure him.
That was when they searched Baidu.com.
The first result was for the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police, a military hospital in Beijing, which claimed its advanced “biological immunity therapy” could cure precisely that form of cancer.
Wei’s parents went to the hospital and met a man surnamed Li, who introduced himself as the department’s head doctor. Li said the therapy was developed by its partners at Stanford University and had a success rate of 80 to 90 percent. Li said the therapy could guarantee Wei at least 20 more years.
The cost was staggering.
Suspicious of fraud, Wei and his parents went to search Baidu again. There they learned that the hospital was among the Top 10 in Beijing, and that Li was a frequent guest on CCTV 10.
Wei’s family borrowed heavily to come up with the 200,000 yuan for the first treatment. Several months later, Wei’s condition had visibly worsened.
Wei’s father went to Li to ask what went wrong, but Li said the treatment would only be effective if it was repeated three times.
Suspicious, Wei asked users on Zhihu.com about the so-called “biological immunity therapy.” A student in the US helped to search Google and contact several American hospitals, all of which said that therapy had been abandoned at the clinical stage and was not being used.
On April 12, Wei Zexi’s father left message on Zhihu.com on behalf of his son who died that morning.
Wei’s death inspired thousands of articles and analyses as the public and media fumed over the hospital’s deception.
But slowly, the narrative turned to question just why Baidu chose to recommend this hospital.
People’s Daily’s investigated the hospital and found the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police, founded in 2000 and located in Xicheng, is an integrated hospital. The hospital refused to comment on Wei’s death, but announced it would temporarily close for an investigation on May 4.
Facing pressure alone, Baidu sent out a message on its official Weibo account Baidu Promotion on April 28. The company said it contacted Wei’s father and confirmed the hospital was “a qualified third-level grade-A hospital.”
But the question was never about the hospital’s legal existence: it was about Baidu’s policy of offering paid listings.
Like Wei, most people in China turn to Baidu for help. The top result is always guaranteed to attract clicks.
As the media dug more into Baidu’s promotion methods, it learned that hospitals managed by people from Putian, Fujian province – the “Putianxi” – were heavily invested in its paid listings business.
Putianxi hospitals can be found across the nation. Most offer services focused on andrology and sexual dysfunction, gynecology, infertility and plastic surgery with their “treatments” derived from old folk remedies for various venereal diseases.
As a cost-saving measure, many national hospitals decided to outsource their less profitable departments during the last decade. Many of those departments were snapped up by various Putianxi.
A report by Jiemian.com revealed that Putianxi are connected to almost most of China’s top hospitals, including Mary’s Hospital, Maria Gynecology and Obstetrics Hospital, China Rehabilitation Research Center, Beijing Friendship Hospital, Beijing Tianlun Hospital and Magicunion Beijing Medical Cosmetology Hospital and MUnion China.
Who to Blame?
Jiang Jun, a spokesman for the State Internet Information Office, told CNR.cn that multiple departments have already investigated Baidu.
Zhu Weiwen, deputy director of the Research Center for Propaganda Law at China University of Political Science and Law, said Baidu should be responsible for advertisement.
According to the most recent revision of China’s Advertisement Law, while advertisers face full responsibility for the authenticity of their ads, publishers of ads – such as Baidu – bear a social responsibility and must verify the qualifications of promoted hospitals.
Liu Junhai, a professor of law at Renmin University of China, told CNR.com that although Baidu did perform its basic duty of investigating the advertiser, it should have been more careful in promoting advertisements related to health.
Liu said that unlike common product advertisements, medical and health advertisements can have fatal consequences for people and families. All advertisements for medical services, products and equipment require approval from the Bureau of Advertising to ensure public safety.
Moreover, Zheng Xueqian, a council member of China Health Law Society, said outsourcing of medical services is strictly forbidden by the National Health and Family Planning Commission. Military hospitals also have clear regulations that prohibit the use of medical advertisements.
But after blaming Baidu, Putianxi and the lack of supervision of national departments, commentators came to acknowledge that Wei Zexi and his family made their own fatal mistake: believing what they read on the Internet.