Beijing Health Department Shuts Down Online Consumer Health Service
BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, May 29 2013
The Beijing Health Department shut down an online medical appointment booking service only three days after it launched. The service had the potential to reduce waits and save patients exorbitant scalper fees. The Health Department claimed that the service misled patients and put their personal information at risk, but the department operates an online reservation service of its own and the new website, by the massive e-commerce site Taobao, threatened that service.
The wait for an appointment at respected hospitals in China can be eight hours or more and professional scalpers sell appointment slots for more than 50 times the cost of a consultation. One family slept on a hospital floor for three nights to get their 8-year-old child to a doctor. The next time they needed a hospital visit – for their daughter's operation – they had two other relatives take turns waiting in line with them. The free Taobao service was meant to help patients avoid such long waits, especially those who might not have time to spend in line, or the cash to pay scalpers.
Beijing spent more than 10 million RMB ($1.6 million) on its own free public service, Beijing Unified Hospital Appointment System, with which the Taobao service would have been in competition.
Consumers are complaining en masse on social media, and a state-run paper even ran a China Radio Network article that criticized the decision. The opinion piece argued that “The Beijing Health Department says that Taobao is violating consumers' interests but no matter how you look at it the department is having itself make the decision instead of consumers, and avoiding the truth thtat taking a number [at Chinese hospitals] is very difficult.” One Sina Weibo user wrote bitterly, "All the things that benefit ordinary citizens are disputed, while all the things that benefit the government are adopted. This is fundamentally how it is."
According to SINA English, the health authorities in Beijing said the Taobao service directed patients to the government outpatient appointment website, and they did not build their own appointment platform. But if the government service worked so well, why are consumers so inflamed by the removal of the Taobao site? And why are the lines for health appointments still so long?
The service is still available in other cities, and so perhaps it will still do Chinese citizens, outside of Beijing, some good.
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