Opting for America

Rich cancer patients prefer treatment in US

Ma, the founder and executive chair of Alibaba Group Holding, speaks during the SoftBank World 2014 event in Tokyo

Ma: his in-law died of cancer

Jack Ma is concerned about cancer. In an article written late last year for the Harvard Business Review he commented on the vast increase in cases of the disease in China. “Cancer – a rare word in conversation 30 years ago – is now an everyday topic,” he lamented.

There is a personal dimension to his concerns too. In an interview with the Nature Conservancy Ma also revealed that his father-in-law had died from the disease, something “which has made me re-evaluate a lot of things”.

The Alibaba boss also believes that there is a direct correlation between the surge in cancer cases and China’s environmental degradation. Ma even says his wife keeps telling him: “Be careful of the water that you drink. There is something wrong with it.”

The growing prevalence of cancer – there are about 3.5 million new cases in China per year – has had major consequences. One of these: for those who are rich enough, trips to US hospitals to be diagnosed and treated.

Take the Mayo Clinic, which is viewed by many Chinese as the leading institution where diagnosis is concerned (it has treated three former US presidents). CBN spoke to one of its directors, Melissa Goodwin, who said that between 2012 and 2013 the number of patients from China had doubled. In the second half of this year Goodwin predicts it will be triple the level of 2012. She says China has become Mayo’s “second highest priority” after America.

New Century Weekly explains the lure of the US: better diagnosis and more effective treatment than in China. It cites the example of a 57 year-old tycoon surnamed Mou, who got colorectal cancer. Five years ago he was given no hope of survival by Chinese doctors. “Unwilling to accept his fate,” the magazine writes, “Mou went to the US to receive treatment and has now entered his sixth year of survival.”

The annual report of the China Cancer Registry estimates that only 25% of Chinese patients recover from cancer when they are treated in China; versus a rate closer to 65% for cancer sufferers in developed world hospitals. Mou says, for example, that the American five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer had reached 67% at the time he began treatment, versus 31% in China. (And the American Cancer Society forecasts the number of US cancer survivors will rise by almost 50% by 2022 thanks to medical breakthroughs and better technology.)

Saint Lucia Consulting was early to spot the trend. The Beijing-based advisory firm has become a major player in arranging for Chinese patients to be treated abroad, primarily in America (though some also go to the UK and Germany). Its boss Cai Qiang told New Century Weekly that it has helped almost 1,000 clients get treated for illness overseas, 80% of them for cancer (while 10% are for heart disease, and the remainder for neurological conditions).

Cai says the vast majority are entrepreneurs aged between 50 and 60, who have the means to pay their international medical bills – a necessary precondition given Cai’s estimate that the average spend for cancer treatment in the US is the world’s highest at $150,000 per patient.

Saint Lucia’s bespoke packages involve finding the right hospitals and consultants for its clients, as well as arranging appropriate visas. The idea is to make it as hassle-free as possible for those unfamiliar with the US medical system.

Its client roster looks likely to grow too. The Hurun Wealth report calculates that China has over a million people with more than Rmb10 million in assets, with another survey reporting that a quarter of this group is dissatisfied with their health. Mou is a good example. He is worth more than Rmb100 million ($16 million) and says the vast majority of his friends also opt for overseas medical care when they face a serious health problem.

The Shanghai Medical Tourism Products and Promotion Platform reckons 60,000 Chinese go abroadeach year to seek medical services. That might explain why Sequoia Capital last month invested Rmb50 million in Saint Lucia. As a China-based partner with the international fund commented: “There will definitely be a bigger need for overseas medical care in the future – larger than today.”

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