For many Chinese, scalpers are a fact of life, for securing that last minute ticket to a concert or even a train seat home before the Chinese New Year.
But scalpers (or ticket-touts in UK parlance) are active in the health sector too. If you want to see a doctor, you might well need to start negotiating a price with one.
In Beijing’s city hospitals, every patient needs to register for a ticket for an appointment. So the touts hire people to queue up to get appointment slots. Then they resell them to patients who are waiting further back in the queue, usually at aggressive mark-ups.
Many of the ‘yellow cows’ – the local name for scalpers – are organised into gangs. Last December, Beijing’s Xicheng district police arrested 14 scalpers, who had been trading immunology appointments at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital. According to China Daily, tickets which should cost Rmb14 were selling for as much as Rmb1,400.
Patients and their families loathe the scalpers. But they often find themselves giving in: “I went to Beijing Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine early in the morning,” a resident in Beijing told the Global Times. “However, for two days, all the numbers in the department were out when I got there at 9am.” So, with no other option, she turned to the touts. “The registration price at the hospital is Rmb7. He [the scalper] charged me Rmb100, but it saved me a lot of time.”
The reselling of appointment tickets has also gone mainstream, thanks to the internet. Healthcare touts openly solicit business on Baidu Post Bar, a popular internet forum. They post telephone numbers, as well as commitments that “guarantee a registration across all hospitals in the city,” reports Nanfang Daily.
It can be a profitable occupation too. Sanxiang Metropolis Daily found that head scalpers of hospital registration tickets earn more than Rmb60,000 ($8,800) a month in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. That’s the annual income of a local white-collar worker.
The authorities are now under growing pressure to crack down on the worst cases of profiteering, especially after a recent news report on Hunan Television drew wider attention to the scalpers in action. In the footage a large crowd is waiting outside a hospital. When the hospital gates finally open, there is a rush to get appointment registration numbers. Most of the people charging to the front are ticket scalpers. Those at the back of the scrum (the elderly, the sick and the infirm) look to be the ones actually in need of the medical attention.
The brazenness of the ‘yellow cows’ can stir public anger towards the healthcare system. So in Beijing police are promising sterner punishment for touts. Hospitals in the city have also started checking the ID cards of the people lining up for waiting tickets.
Others argue that the touts are capitalising on a market inefficiency, and a better response is to make more appointments available. China is trying to train more doctors to meet demand (see WiC11) The need is chronic: Beijing’s hospitals last year issued 120 million appointment tickets in a city with a nominal capacity to see 1.78 million patients, said Fang Laiying, Secretary General of Beijing Municipal Health Bureau.
Beijing is still a preferred location to see a doctor, though. “Patients only trust a small number of doctors at famous hospitals,” says Zhang, a Beijing resident. “But these doctors usually have a quota for the number of patients they see each day, which makes it very difficult to get an appointment.”
Without more doctors, those phone numbers on the internet are going to come in handy.
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