Walk into the emergency room at most public Chinese hospitals and you’ll likely see rows of patients hooked up to IV drips filled with antibiotics. Many of these patients definitely need these infusions, but many simply do not – that such sights are commonplace in local hospitals is testament to the over-use (and prescription) of antibiotics in the country. This opinion piece in The Nation puts it in alarming perspective (emphasis added):
Since the government suddenly withdrew from the public health care system, in which it had played a leading role over the past 30 years, China’s medical establishments have become so profitable that drug sales form a significant part of hospitals’ income, leading to severe drug overuse. In China, the ratio of drug costs against the total expenses for medical treatment is about 50 per cent, which is extremely rare around the world.
The overuse of antibiotics is a particular concern. China has become the world’s top antibiotics consuming country, with an annual per-capita consumption of antibiotics at 138 grams, or 10 times that of the average American. According to data from the World Health Organisation, up to 80 per cent of all hospital admissions in China receive some type of antibiotic, in which broad-spectrum antibiotics and multiple antibiotic courses account for 58 per cent, much higher than the international level of 30 per cent.
The article goes on to cite how physicians, who reap financial rewards from the pharmaceutical companies for prescribing their drugs, are the primary factor behind this problem. This is not to say that the over-use of antibiotics is a distinctly Chinese problem – last time I was at a doctor’s appointment in the US it seemed that the number of pharmaceutical agents who popped in to drop off samples or arrange "lunch appointments" outnumbered the patients – but as with many issues, the scale of the problem in China is disturbingly distinct.
Authorities are well aware of the issue, and as Xinhua reports, health authorities are calling for a long-term solution to restructure China’s healthcare sector to resolve this problem and have released new regulations intended to curb their use in the country.
But with the threat of rising pandemics and troubling revelations that many antibiotics, including Tamiflu, have been rendered ineffective against superbugs like H7N9, many officials and industry insiders are pushing for even faster assessment and approval processes for new antibiotics.
It’s a conundrum with no easy answers – more public awareness of the problem will certainly help and you’d be well-advised to double check with your doctor as to whether those six boxes are really necessary to treat your flu.