A Beijing resident, Han Zheng, has become a medical guide to assist patients with hospital visits. He started this job 13 months ago when he discovered that many patients were struggling to navigate around hospitals. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many patients have postponed their hospital visits, and now that the pandemic has passed, more people are availing of outpatient services at hospitals across the capital. Han has been a significant help to patients, accompanying them to appointments and treatments, and making the wait easier for them. He would also run errands for patients who lived alone or couldn’t get an appointment with the right doctor. Despite contracting COVID-19 himself, Han continues to assist patients, especially those with unresolved problems from previous hospital visits. Han’s job has been essential in the pandemic, ensuring that patients receive the assistance and care they need.
Despite the challenges of locating a retired doctor and delving into buried medical records, Han was able to fulfill the patient’s request, a feat that brought him great satisfaction. He has become intimately familiar with the hospital over the past year, and now wears two masks when he goes there. He typically handles two appointments per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each lasting a minimum of one hour. The fee ranges from 300 to 500 yuan ($44.3-$73.8), based on the duration of the service.
Originally from Chifeng, a city in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region of China, Han worked in international trade for several years before launching his own business in 2018. However, his business did not succeed, particularly in light of the pandemic that began in 2019. In a moment of desperation, Han came across an unconventional line of work while scrolling through Douyin, a video-sharing platform. “I thought I could do it because I have accompanied my relatives and friends from home during their hospital visits,” Han explains.
Han assessed the situation and recognized that Beijing is a destination for patients with complex medical conditions, given its wealth of medical resources. He believed that his services would be appreciated by elderly individuals with chronic illnesses whose children could not always be present. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population over the age of 60 stands at 264 million, accounting for 18.7 percent of the total population, and this number is expected to exceed 300 million by 2025. According to the National Working Commission on Aging, the number of frail elderly individuals over the age of 60 who have difficulty performing daily tasks surpassed 42 million in 2020, indicating that one out of every six individuals over the age of 60 was unable to care for themselves.
Han was also motivated by China’s efforts to address the needs of its aging population, as evidenced by the State Council’s release of a development plan for elderly care services during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25). The plan outlines significant goals and initiatives, including expanding the supply of elderly care services, enhancing healthcare support for seniors, and promoting the innovative and integrated development of service models. Furthermore, Han believed that he could be of assistance to individuals from outside Beijing who were unfamiliar with the capital’s medical system. To earn the trust of potential clients, Han created a Douyin account under his real name and with his photo identification.
Han’s language skills in English and Arabic allowed him to extend his services to international patients. In addition to that, he also made it a point to familiarize himself with different hospitals, including their specializations and medical procedures for various illnesses. This was to make it easier for patients to save time and get the answers they needed. However, at the start, Han was caught off guard when people began approaching him with questions about medical problems. This prompted him to read up on common medical problems and make connections with hospitals that were relevant.
To ensure he was well prepared, Han would visit hospitals beforehand to familiarize himself with their treatment procedures and the location of all the departments and examination rooms. He would also acquire details about the patient’s condition and study it before offering suggestions. This allowed him to offer two to three public hospitals to patients as soon as they told him their problems.
Han also posted a video of parents at Beijing Children’s Hospital, Capital Medical University, on his Douyin account in July. The video received more than 130,000 views, which helped increase his business’s visibility.
As Han’s business grew, he began to see the value of his work. He witnessed first-hand how a parent struggled to take care of their sick child while navigating a large hospital. He felt his work was worthwhile every time he could save them from procedural trouble, such as pre-diagnosis consultation, medical report, and medication pickups. As an emerging profession, medical guidance lacked agreed standards for safety and sustainable development. Han questioned what would happen if a client withheld information such as an infectious disease or an accident that happened to the patient in their old age.
Wang Hui, the operation manager of a medical guide service company in Hefei, Anhui province, believes that elderly people may face challenges while accessing intelligent medical services. With the changing family structure, the aging population, and the demand for better medical treatment in first-tier cities, the need for medical guide services has increased.
Song Yu, a research assistant at the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, confirms the authenticity of this need and suggests that hospitals set up guide desks or offer guidance to newly admitted patients. Additionally, Song recommends that medical service facilities provide professional training to related personnel to enhance management and reduce conflicts between medical guides and patients.
Wang Yunfei, associate professor at Anhui University’s School of Sociology and Political Science, advocates for guiding documents that regulate the entry threshold, medical guide service content, and fees. He also proposes that both parties sign a contract to clarify their rights and obligations.
As a medical guide, Han has witnessed some of his customers’ most challenging moments. He has comforted patients in pain, helped them through life-or-death decisions, and supported them through the pressure of facing their fate. For some, Han serves as a go-between when the patient is in a state of panic and cannot understand the doctor’s diagnosis. Some young people also seek Han’s service as they cannot take time off work to go to the hospital and get their test results.
When Han receives bad medical reports for his customers, he has to think of ways to cushion the blow and make recommendations before breaking the news. Despite the challenges of the job, Han plans to continue reaching out to those in need.
In September, the Beijing Municipal Health Commission invited Han to participate in a survey on the development of the medical-guide sector. Han sees this as a positive step toward standardizing the profession and improving medical guide services in the country. Ultimately, while medical guides can provide valuable assistance to patients, it is also essential for clients to act honorably and responsibly when availing of these services.
The demand for medical guide services in China is on the rise due to changes in family structure and an aging population. Medical guide service providers aim to offer a better understanding of the medical treatment process to patients, saving them time and trouble. While the career of medical guidance has yet to have an agreed set of standards for safety and sustainable development, authorities need to issue guiding documents to regulate the entry threshold, medical guide service content and fees. Medical facilities must provide professional training to related personnel to strengthen management and help avoid conflicts between medical guides and patients. Medical guides like Han have the honor of their clients at stake, as they offer professional and emotional support to patients, especially during their weakest moments. Despite the challenges that come with the profession, Han plans to continue reaching out to those who need him, hoping that the country will soon standardize the profession.