Translated and compiled by Yuan-ling Liang
Baidu, the largest search engine in China, has been told to make a swathe of changes to its health care advertising system.
Chinese regulators demanded the changes after an investigation into the death of a student who had undergone immunotherapy treatment at a hospital he found on Baidu.
Baidu says the investigation found, among other things, that the bidding price by its online marketing customers is given significant weight in search results ranking, and that certain results are not clearly identified as online marketing.
“The PRC regulators believe these practices affect the fairness and objectivity of search results and might mislead internet users,” the New York listed company says in a statement.
Baidu says it has to change its practice of “providing online marketing services to medical, pharmaceutical, health care and other similar businesses, and refrain from providing online marketing services to medical organizations that do not have requisite qualifications from competent regulatory authorities.”
The company, which has more than 650 million users, must also set up a new system for handling complaints and compensate users harmed by misleading marketing information.
According to a Reuters report, search revenue accounted for more than 80% of Baidu’s total sales revenue last year. Health care related search revenue amounts to about a quarter of total search sales.
Baidu shares have slumped about 14% to US$166 so far this month amid news of the death and investigation.
On February 26, 21-year-old Chinese student Wei Zexi posted on Zhihu his experience seeking medical treatment in China. Wei suffered from a rare form of cancer, synovial sarcoma, and was already in the last stage when he was diagnosed.
“I’m the only child in our family, so my parents strived to find a possible cure for me," writes Wei. [Quote translated]
Wei and his family found the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police Corps through Baidu, the search engine used by more than 80% of China’s Internet users. According to their research, the DC-CIK treatment, a “biological immunity treatment” used in the Second Hospital ranks first on the search list. The search results said that it could cure Wei’s tumor.
After visiting the hospital, Wei and his family were told that Stanford Medicine developed this pioneering technique. The doctor guaranteed he would live for at least 20 more years, and gave him an 80% to 90% chance of recovery.
Wei spent more than RMB 200,000 (approximately US$3,075) on his treatment only to find out months later that the cancer cells had spread to his lungs. The hospital denied that they made any promises regarding Wei’s health and told his family “it would be effective after more treatment.”
A friend of Wei on Zhihu, who studied in the US, did some research online on the technique applied to Wei and found out that the treatment has already been eliminated overseas due to its lack of efficiency.
Wei passed away near the end of April this year. On May 1, his friend posted an article on Baidu Tieba mentioning his experience searching for a medical cure for Wei, which was shared tens of thousands of times on the internet in China.
The Chinese government is currently investigating the case.
Not the first patient misled by Baidu’s medical search engine
On May 4, Hsu Lu posted an article on Douban saying, “Wei Zexi, I don’t want to keep silent anymore,” revealing that Wei is not the first victim of Baidu’s medical search engine.
Hsu and her brother were diagnosed with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, a rare disease that her doctor said couldn’t be cured. Her family did not want to give up and used Baidu to search for possible treatments.
The Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police Corps appeared on the top of the search list saying that they have the newest technique introduced from the US that can cure Hsu and her brother.
The doctors said this technique could help Hsu and her brother recover within half a year. Hsu’s family even saw posts written by patients saying that they had a good recovery after going to the hospital, which reassured them.
Hsu and her brother spent a great amount of money on their treatment. However, Hsu found out one day that the posts were all written by patients who are illiterate. The hospital faked the feedback from patients, who did not recover in the end.
“I don’t want to keep silent anymore,” writes Hsu, “ These liars, who deceived us into believing them and paying them, should all be sentenced to jail for their selfishness.” [Quote translated]
Relation between Putian hospitals and Baidu
The hospitals where Wei and Hsu received treatment, the hospitals of the Beijing Armed Police Corps, are part of the “Putian hospital system.”
Health Intel Asia reports, the Putian hospitals have strong influences on China’s healthcare industry and have long been related to a huge advertising-based model that exploits the medical service system.
Liang Jian-yong, an official of Putian, Fujian, points out that in 2013, Baidu’s main customer was the Putian Hospital. Putian hospitals spent RMB 12 billion (approximately US$1.8 billion) on Baidu’s online search commercials called the “competitive ranking search system.”
In the competitive ranking search system, companies or institutes that pay more than others can be ranked higher on the search list, which is very similar to Google Adwords. However, the credibility of these “commercial buyers” is never a factor that Baidu takes into consideration regarding the arrangement of the list.
21 Jingji conducted an investigation revealing the system that exploits patients, which is operated by Putain hospitals and Baidu’s search engine. The report points out that the system burdens patients who are asked to pay much higher than they should, to support high commercial fees.
Baidu neglecting patient rights
According to Baidu’s financial reports, in the third quarter of 2015, 96% of its profits came from its online marketing strategies.
This January, Baidu was accused of selling one of its hemophilia Tieba (discussion groups on Baidu) to a non-governmental organization, “Home of Hemophilia Patients,” which is related to a private hospital. The original operators of the hemophilia Tieba were replaced without being informed.
One of the netizens analyzed the operators on several Baidu’s medical Tieba and found out that 40% of these Tiebas were already sold to different people or institutes that post advertisements of medical treatments. Many criticized Baidu of its commercial intention and cooperation with private profitable groups.
On April 29, the day before Wei’s death aroused anger online, Lee Cheng, general manager of Baidu’s department of medical development, was accused by the audience of the morality behind its commercial strategies on a GMIC’s medical forum.
Lee said, “We understand that the field of medical and health is not the same as other industries. It’s more than just providing a simple message to the users on the search engine. We admit that there is still room for improvement.” [Quote translated]
Edited by Olivia Yang