Taking the new Silk Road to a better class of healthcare

Updated: 2015-04-30 07:09

By Cui Jia(China Daily)

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Authorities in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region plan to transform the area into a hub for international medical tourism and attract patients from across Central Asia. Cui Jia reports from Urumqi.

After undergoing surgery for breast cancer at a hospital in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Assem, from Kazakhstan, said she was confident of making a full recovery. Assem's surgeon - Xinjiang native Jenskaliya Zimu - is well-known in Kazakhstan because he has successfully operated on a number of patients from the Central Asian country.

Assem, who declined to give her surname, is one of a growing number of patients from neighboring countries, including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, heading to China's westernmost region because the level of medical care is higher than at home.

"Also, we have no language problems here because many of the doctors and nurses are from the Kazak ethnic group, so we speak the same language and have similar cultures, which makes me feel very comfortable," said the 35-year-old, who is undergoing treatment for breast and thyroid cancer at the Xinjiang People's Hospital in Urumqi.

In March, Zhang Chunxian, Party chief of Xinjiang, revealed that even some leaders of Central Asian countries regularly visit Xinjiang for medical checks, which gave him the confidence to upgrade the facilities and services with the aim of making the region a popular destination for people from Central Asian countries along the route of the proposed Silk Road Economic Belt.

The economic belt, proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013, aims to revive the famous ancient trading route, becoming an overland network that will connect China, Central Asia, Russia and a number of European countries. Now, the central government has named Xinjiang, a crucial link on the ancient route, as the only core region on the Chinese stretch of the proposed new route.

Jenskaliya Zimu is a member of the Kazak ethnic group, but has found fame outside his home region. "Many people in Kazakhstan know my name simply by word of mouth," the 47-year-old said.

When he briefed Assem about the results of her blood tests and the preparations for a new round of chemotherapy, he spoke to her in the Kazak language, but the nurses, who are Han Chinese, have to use a translator whenever they need to explain procedures.

Recruitment drive

Wang Faxing, the hospital president, said the hospital employs 50 doctors and nurses from the Kazak ethnic group, and will soon begin a recruitment drive to attract more staff from the Kazak, Uzbek and Russian ethnic groups as part of the expansion efforts along the modern-day Silk Road.

People from countries bordering Xinjiang have been receiving medical treatment in the region since the 1970s, but in 2008 the hospital established an international medical services department to provide greater assistance to expat patients, such as accompanying them during examinations and translating medical records and files, Wang said.

"The construction of 50 wards specially designed and allocated to the department will be completed in August, so we can provide the patients with tailored services provided by doctors and nurses fluent in Kazak, Uzbek and Russian. Fifty more wards will be built within two years," Wang said.

The aim is to house all foreign patients in one purpose-built facility, and reduce the need for staff to move between buildings to attend to patients in different departments, which is time-consuming and occasionally results in delays to treatment, he added.

Since 2008, more than 15,000 foreign patients have been treated at the hospital, with more than 4,000 of them staying at least one night. Most of the patients come from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the number is expected to rise as the services and facilities are further improved, according to Wang.

A major factor in Assem's decision to travel from her home in Almaty is that the waiting times are long at public hospitals in Kazakhstan, and her condition means she cannot afford to wait several months for treatment. She had her operation just one week after being admitted to the Xinjiang People's Hospital. Ease of access was another reason. "It only takes 90 minutes to fly from Almaty to Urumqi. It's so convenient," she said.

Li Guoqing, head of the hospital's cardiology department, said the primary illnesses seen among patients from Central Asian countries are brain tumors, cancers, alcohol-related diseases and joint problems caused by obesity.

"After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many Russian doctors left Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, causing severe shortages of medical practitioners in those countries. Also, economic problems mean the hospitals are unable to purchase the most advanced medical and surgical equipment, so the levels of medical care in those countries have fallen sharply compared with Xinjiang," said Li, who paid a visit to Kazakhstan in February.

Kazakhstan nationals used to travel to Germany, Israel or Russia for treatment of serious illnesses, but now many are opting to visit Xinjiang instead, because it's closer and the standards of care are high. Moreover, treatment costs are far lower in Xinjiang, and for certain types of surgery the fee is about one-third of that charged in German hospitals, according to Li.

"We have the market and the advantages to become a medical center for the wider area, and we are not prepared to compromise the quality of the care we provide. After all, we're talking about people's lives," he said.

To attract a larger number of overseas patients, the hospital has launched websites in Russian and English, and also advertises in Kazak newspapers. However, in recent years Xinjiang has been the target of a number of deadly attacks, which has resulted in China becoming increasingly cautious about issuing entry visas to residents of neighboring countries who intend to visit the region, for fear that terrorists, separatists and extremists may enter the country and foment trouble, or train and assist local people to carry out attacks.

The central government has said religious extremism is the driving force behind the attacks in the predominantly Muslim region.

"I understand that stability comes before everything else in Xinjiang, but I hope the government will ease the visa policies for those who want to come to Xinjiang for medical treatment because it's now a part of the national strategy," Wang, the hospital president, said.

Traditional treatments

Many patients from overseas are attracted by the traditional medicines used by different ethnic groups, which are known to be effective in the treatment of certain maladies.

"Many people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan come to us for treatment because friends who have visited Xinjiang on business have told them about traditional Uygur medicines, which are good for treating skin problems, such as vitiligo and psoriasis," said Mumbarak Pazula, head of the Uygur International Medical Department at the Xinjiang Hospital of Traditional Uygur Medicine in Urumqi.

Between 2012 and 2014, the hospital received an average of 200 foreign patients, mostly from Central Asian countries, every month. Of the 127 patients who visited the hospital last year, 95 were seeking treatment for skin diseases.

According to Mumbarak, traditional Uygur medicines use herbs to treat tough skin conditions, while most Western medicines that are used to treat the problems contain hormones, which only work for a short while so the condition is likely to recur when patients stop taking them.

"Western medicine has almost given up on treating vitiligo, a condition that causes the skin to lose its pigment, because it's not a life-threatening illness. But the fact is, many patients lose their self-confidence completely because of the white blotches that spread across their skin," she said, speaking in the cozy waiting room of the new department, which was set up in February last year.

Traditional Uygur medicines have been proved to be effective on 98 percent of patients with vitiligo on their hands, the most difficult part of the body to treat, she added.

The Xinjiang Hospital of Traditional Uygur Medicine is next to a large market that attracts traders from all over Central Asia, and the hospital plans to set up a small clinic in the market so foreign businesspeople will learn about the traditional medicines and tell friends and relatives back home.

"We want to built a museum to showcase the rich history of traditional Uygur medicines and encourage tourists to come to the hospital and have a checkup while they are in town," said Yusup Metnur, the hospital president.

The hospital plans to add English and Russian instructions to the packaging of traditional medicines, along with Uygur and Chinese, to internationalize the "brand", he added.

In addition to public hospitals, privately owned medical facilities in Xinjiang have also been eyeing the opportunities presented by the plan unveiled last year to transform the region into an important medical care hub.

The Halixin Hospital of Traditional Mongolian and Chinese Medicine, a private facility in Urumqi, has been treating patients from Central Asia for eight years, and almost all of the patients now come from outside China.

Unlike public facilities, private hospitals can create a recognizably homelike environment for their patients, so even the chef at Halixin is an Uzbek. More than 1,052 foreign patients were treated at the hospital last year, a huge increase from the 190 who visited in 2010.

"People in Central Asian countries often have large families, so we hope that once they've used our services they will tell a lot of people," Yu Gangshan, the hospital president, said.

Kazak national Tatyana Vassilyeva was resting on her bed watching a Kazak TV channel after a session of traditional Mongolian acupuncture. "I've been suffering from severe back pain. After 11 days of being treated with traditional Mongolian and Chinese medicines, the pain is under control. I feel very comfortable now," said the 67-year-old, who heard about the hospital from a friend.

Galina Gorenyok, 54, also from Kazakhstan, was sharing the room with Vassilyeva. Two years ago, she traveled to Dalian, a city in the south of Liaoning province, for treatment with traditional Chinese medicine, but said she preferred the services offered in Urumqi: "Dalian is quite far, and the cost of treatment there was higher than in Urumqi. The Halixin offers good healthcare and other services, such as translators who help the patients when they are being seen by the doctors."

Another Kazak, Nikolay Spinin, was having a foot massage in the hospital. He said he enjoyed the bitter taste of the traditional Chinese medicine he has been prescribed, describing it as "Chinese coffee", and he referred to the kneading action of the masseur as "happy pains".

"In between treatments, my wife and I often stroll around the neighborhood. She loves to shop and I enjoy watching the women square dancing," the 67-year-said. "I feel at home in Urumqi because the people are friendly and we have similar cultures."

Liu Chengyuan, deputy director of the Xinjiang Regional Health and Family Commission, said a detailed plan for establishing an international medical center on the Silk Road Economic Belt has already been submitted to the regional government for review.

According to the plan, within two years, at least 500 beds will be available for foreign nationals in five hospitals, which will receive funds to upgrade their international services.

Xinjiang will promote medical tourism in countries along the proposed economic belt, and also plans to set up a telemedical network with neighboring countries within five years that will enable Chinese experts to help local doctors with diagnosis of rare or complicated diseases.

"Better medical services will bring people's hearts closer. If Chinese doctors cure one foreign patient, that person's family will have good feelings about China. Of course, if the relatives of a country's president were treated and cured in China, it would make the ties between the two countries even stronger," Liu said.

Mao Weihua contributed to this story.

Contact the writer at cuijia@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 04/30/2015 page5)