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Chinese Solution to Quack Medicine: Social Media

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  • Chinese Solution to Quack Medicine: Social Media

    False Medical Advertisements in China

    "This is guerrilla warfare." That's how Dr. Stanley Li, founder of the Chinese medical Website, described his fight against false medical advertisements (FMAs). Li says these fake treatments and medicines are a serious problem in China because they delay professional diagnosis and treatment of serious diseases and other medical problems. They are advertised in newspapers, on TV, and online. In one famous case that brought the issue to light, a 32-year-old woman died of lupus after taking ineffective and fake drugs advertised in an ad. Professional treatment of lupus can be effective in most cases.

    During his recent TEDx talk in Beijing, Li showed examples of medicines that were claimed to remedy any number of ailments. For medical professionals like Li, they are easy to spot as fakes: tea, socks, wristbands, herbal pills, and pillows that cure hypertension, diabetes, and cancer, among many other things. Li says these advertisements use "many superstitions, exaggerations, or abuse of expert names -- even those of Nobel Prize winners."

    The claims might seem ridiculous, but Li says 15 -30 million Chinese buy products advertised in FMAs every year. Of the 300-400 billion RMB (~$50 billion) spent on medical advertising every year in China, he estimates that about 60 billion RMB ($10 billion) is for fake treatments. These ads often prey on the elderly. Every medical advertisement requires a license number in the ad, but Li says they often shrink the number to a font so small it can barely be made out. "It is very hard to distinguish, especially for senior Chinese people," says Li. Many FMAs don't even look like advertisements, rather posing as news stories.

    The Cure

    Frustrated with this, Dr. Li partnered with 3 other prominent medical experts: Eric Chong, Secretary- General of the China Hospital Association ; Liao Xinbo, Deputy Director of Guangdong's Health Department ; and Yu Keyi, a professor at Peking Union Medical College Hospital. Together, they came up with a way to give every citizen the power to "win the war on FMA" from their smartphones. Since January, they've built a community on Sina Weibo and WeChat, the most popular social networks in China, to crowdsource images of FMAs wherever they appear.

    For example, one of's 200,000 Weibo fans need only take, post, and tag a picture in their feed of a suspected fake ad. will see the tag, examine the photo, and, if they confirm it as an FMA, will then repost it (similar to a retweet) for all of its followers to see. Li says Weibo users can use these as a reference to alert their parents, grandparents, or other loved ones. He says they have accumulated more than 500 fakes so far.

    Is There a Bias Against TCM?

    As anyone who observes the Chinese medical system might have guessed, Li's vendetta against FMAs disproportionately affects advertisements claiming to be TCM, rather than Western pharmaceuticals. Li says most TCM agents do not have evidence or clinical trial data to show their effectiveness. Although Li and his team only target advertisements, the line between a false treatment and TCM can be a blurry one.

    "Products in FMAs are usually imitations of TCM. They are made to look like drugs or alternative medicines," says Li. "However, they are alternative therapies with no effects, other than placebo ones."

    In reality, FMAs selling "Western" medicine could be just as common as those selling alternative medicines, but they are not as easy to spot. For FMAs branded as TCM, the lie is usually so obvious that it takes little investigation to confirm.

    Every so often, the government states it will crack down on the hundreds of companies that use FMAs, but Li says the punishment is often no more than a small fine and a wag of the finger. By the end of 2012, some 534 traditional Chinese medical institutions had been warned and fined, and 324 suspended from practice. Only 13 had their licenses revoked.

    Li admits Weibo can sometimes be too fragmented to be used as reference material, so he and his team are now working on an FMA database. Anyone will soon be able to access it online to contribute or browse. In addition to exposing the companies and false treatments, the database will also include the TV station, newspaper, or Website the FMA was located on. "The media partners are not innocent," says Li.


    You might be asking, "Who or what is to tell me what is or isn't real?" The Website, also called "Purple Lilac" in English, is a portal and forum mostly for people with medical or pharmaceutical backgrounds to share their experience. It was started back in 2000 to introduce PubMed to China. Today helps recruit medical students and doctors, advertise and sell pharmaceuticals, and provide continued medical education.

    Despite his professional resume, Li joked that his own parents are often reluctant to take his medical advice. He says this is a common cultural barrier in China. Parents want to retain their status as family authority figures. A son or daughter recognizing a fake medical ad is one thing, but convincing his or her parents could be another hurdle entirely.

    "More and more parents, especially in cities, are more open to suggestions from their children," says Li. "This is slowly changing. It takes time."

    Paul A. Bischoff MEDSCAPE
    Experienced Community organizer. Yeah, let's choose him to run the free world. It will be historic. What could possibly go wrong...

    "You're just a jaded cynical mother****er...." Jeffpeg

    (more comments in my User Profile)

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