Wealthy Chinese Selecting US Hospitals for Expensive, but Reliable Cancer Treatment

November 5, 2018 Updated: November 6, 2018

The death of Li Yong, a prominent anchor with the state-run China Central Television (CCTV), after a lengthy battle with cancer while receiving treatment in New York, has shed light on a trend that shows wealthy Chinese are increasingly traveling to the United States to seek medical care for cancer.

As of the end of October, Saint Lucia Consulting, one of China’s biggest overseas medical-care agents, had arranged U.S. treatment this year for more than 1,500 people, including 100 current patients. That compares with only two cancer clients in 2011, the year that Saint Lucia was founded, the company told Wenzhou Metro newspaper.

For Chinese patients, the most preferred U.S. hospitals for cancer treatment are the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the Children’s Hospital of Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said Tang Guangliang, general manager of Saint Lucia Consulting’s Shanghai branch.

Tang said that larger numbers of Chinese are traveling to the United States after an early-stage cancer diagnosis, rather than resorting to treatment abroad only if local medical services in the early stages of the disease proved unsatisfactory.

Chinese have made up the fastest-growing group of patients in recent years, comprising one-third of all foreign cancer patients, Eric Winter, director of the Breast Oncology Center at Dana-Farber, told Prism Press.

Chinese customers see U.S. medical treatment and diagnosis as being more accurate, effective, and comfortable than treatment at hospitals in China.

Yang Tao, 53, was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer in May 2015. He was treated at hospitals in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but his disease recurred despite several rounds of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. In July, Yang told Prism Press that he went to the United States for treatment and had 11 hours of surgery involving several departments at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“Money isn’t the key issue,” said Yang, who runs his own business and spent $200,000 on the operation. He believes that “not just the technology and the trust between hospital and patients, also the cooperation among different departments in the same hospital” was hard to find in his home country. “In China, no hospital can do this kind of operation.”

According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, the overall five-year relative survival rate for U.S. cancer patients was 66.9 percent in the period from 2008 to 2014. The official China Cancer Statistics Annual Report reported more than 3.8 million Chinese newly diagnosed cancer cases in 2014, or over 10,000 new cancer patients a day. In 2010, the overall five-year relative rate of survival was 30.9 percent.

While the U.S. rate of cancer survival is more than double that among patients in China, the costs are prohibitively high for most people.

Websites of Chinese overseas medical-care agents typically list the fees for a U.S. cancer operation at about $150,000, as well as an additional $100,000 for travel costs, accommodation, and miscellaneous fees. Agents also charge a service fee of about 50,000 yuan (around $7,3000).

Many prospective patients are willing to foot these costs, even selling their real estate to secure treatment for themselves or family members.

Eguan, a Chinese think tank, said that the total market value of Chinese overseas medical care was 730 million yuan ($106 million) in 2016, which jumped 37 percent to 1 billion yuan in 2017. Aside from cancer treatment, the most popular forms of overseas care include fertility treatments and plastic surgery.