The 60-year-old man was well-off and well-connected. He was happy, healthy and living with his family in the heart of Beijing. The only thing bothering him was a runny nose and a nagging fever. It seemed like he had caught the flu.
But in less than a month he was dead from multiple organ failure and adult respiratory distress syndrome.
He was treated at a series of hospitals in Beijing and his family exhausted their social connections and funds before he died in an intensive care unit at a top medical centre on January 23.
The man’s story – detailed by his son-in-law in an impassioned blog post describing the family’s desperate quest for treatment – laid bare two big problems in China’s health services: the high cost of treatment and overworked medical staff.
The 26,000-word post, published on WeChat under the name Li Ke, said Li’s father-in-law, who was not named, started seeing a doctor on December 30 two days after coming down with a runny nose and fever.
He went to a community hospital where he was diagnosed with influenza, and transferred to a better facility when his condition deteriorated into pneumonia.
Li said that, in all, his father sought treatment at five facilities and spent the last two weeks of his life in intensive care at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, where the daily fee was over 20,000 yuan (US$3,165).
The money bought access to the best respiratory physicians in the country but the family was limited to just five minutes of consultation with the doctors each day, Li wrote.
“My wife often kept asking me to make connections [with the doctors] so we can have more detailed explanations, but I couldn’t find the right way,” he wrote.
But Li also detailed the stressful conditions medical staff worked under.
“The doctors and nurses were busy from morning to night … They faced critically ill patients and their anxious or desperate relatives. Who could explain the cause, the pathology of the disease and treatment plan to the relatives one by one every day?”
In an online statement in response to Li Ke’s post, Zhan Qingyuan, a respiratory specialist who helped treat the man at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, said there were still many difficulties in treating the serious viral pneumonia the patient developed.
“We need more clinical research to find out how to better recognise serious cases, give standardised treatment in the early stages, use antibacterials properly, and choose the right respiratory support,” he wrote in an article published on an academic public account on WeChat on Monday.
He said an advanced breathing support method called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, could help patients in more severe cases, although it was not successful in this case.
But Zhan also said ECMO, which costs at least 60,000 yuan per treatment, was not covered by the country’s health insurance system and therefore was not affordable for most families.
“In this flu-plagued winter, it is regrettable that so many patients miss the chance of treatment because of reasons other than the illness itself,” he wrote.
Lu Hongzhou, a leading infectious disease specialist who heads the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, urged the public to take preventive measures during the flu season.
“It’s a fact that we are short of resources. The health authorities have been making efforts during the flu season but things can’t be solved within a day or two,” Lu said.
Chinese health authorities recorded 56 flu deaths last month, compared with 38 for all of 2017 and 56 for 2016.
The National Health and Family Planning Commission said on Monday that flu was spreading more vigorously this winter compared to previous years.
In the United States, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 4,000 people died from the flu or pneumonia during the third week of the new year, while the illnesses were responsible for one in 10 deaths in the first week of February.