Page last updated at 01:47 GMT, Thursday, 19 November 2009

Beijing's poor visit illegal clinics

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Outside a backstreet clinic in Beijing
The sign on the right with the red cross says 'clinic'

In a village on the outskirts of Beijing, a red cross and the word "clinic" have been hand painted on a sign hanging outside a backstreet shop.

Inside there is a table and desk, a bed with a dirty pink sheet on it, and a set of shelves covered with boxes and bottles of medicine.

People go there to seek medical advice, admits the man in charge, although he refuses to show the BBC the clinic's permission to practise.

Dressed in a black jacket and jeans, he does not look like a doctor and turns away when asked about his own medical training.

Beijing city government admits that the Chinese capital has a problem with illegal medical centres - known as black clinics.

It closed down more than 3,300 of these unregulated and sometimes dangerous clinics last year alone.

'Not safe'

They are set up to serve the capital's poorest people, many of them migrant workers who have come to Beijing to find a job.

Most are on the outskirts of the city, often near large construction sites that can employ hundreds of migrant workers.

They offer a cheaper alternative to the city's government-backed clinics and hospitals.

But there are problems - they are often dirty, staffed by people with no formal medical qualifications and it is not clear where they buy their medicine and equipment.

The clinic we visited, in the village of Jinzhan, had been open only for 10 days, according to the man in charge, who declined to give his name.

Inside a backstreet clinic on the outskirts of Beijing
Basic medical equipment is on show at a backstreet clinic in Jinzhan

After initially admitting that he treated patients, he then backtracked and said he was simply running a pharmacy.

But the sign outside and the medical equipment on show inside - including a stethoscope - suggest otherwise.

Migrant worker Yang Shengping, who lives near the clinic with his wife, said he would never go there because it was not hygienic.

But the 36-year-old, who comes from Jiangxi Province in southern China, is lucky - he has medical insurance based in his hometown.

"I'm not covered for minor illnesses, but I can claim 30% of medical expenses for serious problems," said Mr Yang, who installs windows.

"If I go to the doctor's here, I just have to get a receipt and take it back to my hometown to get my money back."

He can afford to go to the village's community health centre, which is just a few streets away from the backstreet clinic.

It looks new and is staffed by workers wearing clean, white medical coats - the problem is that not everyone can afford to use it.

Hidden from view

A visit to this medical centre can cost 10 times more than to an illegal clinic.

China is currently in the middle of reforming its health care system and is trying to give everyone basic health insurance.

But not everyone has the insurance and even those who do still have to pay something towards their medical bills - a burden some find too great.

One person who struggles to pay is Jinzhan resident Yao Ya, who moved to Beijing from the nearby province of Hebei with her five-year-old child.

She admits that she sometimes visits black clinics. "If my child got a cold or a fever I'd have to take him to a proper place, but if it was me who was ill I wouldn't bother," she said.

Beijing's city government has launched a campaign to close down the capital's illegal clinics, but it says that is not an easy task.

"As illegal medical practices are mainly concentrated in the hidden integration of urban and rural districts and rural areas, they are difficult to combat," said a statement from the local health authority.

Officials hope to persuade poorer people that they could be endangering their health by visiting black clinics.

But while people remain poor, black clinics will remain tempting.

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