False Advertising

“Cost, transportation, knowledge, and trust,” I recite to the doctor sitting next to me at dinner, referring to the four big categories of barriers that rural cataract patients face when trying to get treatment.

“There’s a fifth,” he tells me, “and I think it’s the most important factor of all. False advertising.”

You’re a medicine company that makes cataract-dissolving eye drops. That’s a pretty challenging position, because there are no eye drops that can cure cataracts—surgery is the only way. So how do you get people to buy your product? You spend a couple hundred yuan to put out a TV commercial showing a patient whose surgery went terribly wrong and ended up blind. And then you get the narrator to say in a soothing voice, “There’s another way…” And unfortunately there’s no FDA in China.

“What if you got doctors and nurses—professionals—to tell them that those are false advertisements?” I ask in all my naivety. Unfortunately, the 医患关系—the “doctor-patient relationship”—is not in very good standing in China. The patients think the doctors charge high prices for treatment in order to gain a large profit, and therefore resort to methods to receive what they think are cheaper treatments—but as I’ve heard multiple times, ultimately it’s still the patient that gets hurt.

So it appears that from many patients’ point of view, medical personnel can’t be completely trusted. What about other patients?

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