I am exhausted, but before I drift off to bed here in Beijing I wanted to give an account of my first full day.
I sat in on rounds at Peking Union Medical College Hospital, my host and one of the top-ranked hospitals in China. The General Internal Medicine Division is renowned for its ability to treat the hardest cases and consistent high reputation, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in certain respects (sound familiar?).
The similarities are not all that interesting: the team sits round a table and talks about the new patients, then walks through the wards seeing the old patients. Questions are asked to put medical students on the spot (in American English we have a word for that). The differences, however, are somewhat instructive.
In the United States, at least in the internal medicine programs I am familiar with, the senior resident runs rounds and the attending stands by the side to give a teaching point or a minor correction; here, it was the attending leading the discussion. In the United States, the entire team, in many hospitals, is by now acculturated to use hand sanitizer on leaving and entering every room. In the PUMC GIM ward, I was told by someone that I didn’t need to use sanitizer if I wasn’t touching the patient.
There was one similarity which was immediately evident: the hierarchy that hung over interactions between doctor and patient, and the great respect with which the patients treated the doctors every word (though the medical students I spoke to later expressed worries that patients no longer respected them). I don’t understand enough Chinese to know whether the doctors were attuned to the patients’ needs apart from their own particular workflow needs on rounds, but if these doctors are anything like many American ones, I can guess the answer…
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Later, I had the great opportunity to give a presentation for medical students about bridging evidence-based medicine and patient-centered care, using localized prostate cancer as a case in point. We are trying to understand why patients with that most limited stage of cancer might leave an active surveillance (watchful waiting) program to get radiation and surgery which might not be clinically indicated.
We had a lively discussion. I fielded an expected question about what differences I noticed between the Chinese and American health care systems, after less than 48 hours of superficial experience with the former. I tried to demure, but one thing I did talk about was the overuse in the American system, over against the underuse in China which is prevalent for millions and millions of mostly rural poor. We also talked about what doctors might do when what patients want is against the best evidence.
After the lecture, I had a chat with a student of Uygur ancestry who was very interested in the role of religion in health care in the United States. I told him what I think is true: aside from end-of-life care and bioethics, the role of religion is underexamined.
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Finally, I met a bioethicist, Yali Cong, from the Peking University Health Science Center (not to be confused with PUMCH, above. A city of 20 million, Beijing has a lot of hospitals!). We talked about one of the chief difficulties for those involved with clinical and research bioethics: the expectations of clinicians that bioethics will be able to give an “answer,” where in reality what a bioethicist can give is an overview of possibilities, a mapping of the territory, and – in the most lasting influence – a habit of thought that even, or especially, non-bioethicists might benefit from.
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It’s been a great visit so far, and even after I leave China I hope to connect with people here through email and Weibo, my newest social media addiction made all the more interesting by the fact that my Chinese is a lot less than fluent.