Beijing Utilizes Facial Recognition Technology to Target Hospital Scalpers
China’s bustling capital city of Beijing has stepped up its efforts to deter hospital scalpers by employing facial recognition technology. These efforts are the latest in a series of technological and surveillance developments aimed at rejuvenating China’s ailing healthcare system, a system which has been the subject of much controversy and criticism since economic liberalization in the 1980s.
The presence of scalpers is ubiquitous across many industries in China. However, hospital scalpers have become notorious for severely overbooking and reselling a limited supply of appointments to patients, often numbering by the hundreds, at incredibly inflated prices. A notable example includes a 2016 video clip that went viral across Chinese social media, which showed a young woman harshly criticizing hospital staff for colluding with scalpers. The alleged scalping at Guang’anmen Hospital concerned an appointment ticket originally priced at 300 RMB (50 USD) that was offered to her by a scalper for 4,500 RMB (750 USD), 15 times the original price of the ticket.
On Feb. 25, 2019, Beijing’s official municipal newspaper Beijing Daily reported that more than 30 major hospitals in the capital city installed cameras with facial recognition technology and programmed the cameras with the information of around 2,100 suspected hospital scalpers. The city government, in collaboration with major hospitals such as Peking University Third Hospital and Beijing Tiantan Hospital, seeks to target known suspected scalpers that linger around hospitals and deter other scalpers from conducting their activities.
About 900 hospital scalpers were detained by police in 2018; the city is working to ban offenders from receiving societal benefits and access to public transportation and bank money as part of a broader effort to end their activities.
Beijing is widely known as having the best healthcare in the country; however, the vast majority of hospitals are overwhelmed and understaffed. Patients from all over the country flock to Beijing’s top hospitals, with long lines of hundreds waiting outside hospitals for a chance at an appointment.
The biggest problem lies in the fact that the country does not have a functioning primary care system, which is essential as the first line of defense in treating common illnesses and ailments such as fevers and headaches. According to the World Health Organization, China has only one general practitioner for every 6,666 people — a statistic starkly greater than the international standard of one general practitioner for every 1,500 to 2,000 people.
Additionally, unfavorable Chinese societal perceptions of general practitioners make bypassing primary care in favor of directly seeing specialists at large hospitals a common practice, disincentivizing medical professionals from pursuing general practice and compounding the great strain on the overloaded Chinese healthcare system. As such, many patient specialists are consistently overworked, seeing upwards of 200 patients daily.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI, alongside concurrent use of other technologies) is part of the latest initiative by China to divine a cure for the country’s ailing healthcare system. Technologies like computer vision are being applied to compensate for the shortage of qualified doctors and nurses in the country while Chinese companies are seizing the opportunity to utilize AI solutions to read CAT scans and process medical queries.
On a larger scale, the recent push for integrating technology into Chinese medical care is associated with the “Healthy China 2030” initiative, which was proposed in 2016 by Chinese President Xi Jinping to improve healthcare for the state. The initiative promises to support health innovation and expand access to medical care across the nation. In Beijing alone, multiple hospitals have set up their own apps for appointment registration to reduce hospital scalping, with reports claiming that these apps have successfully reduced the number of scalpers since launch.
The use of facial recognition data raises wider questions on the Chinese government’s attempts to accumulate and utilize big data, including consumer buying habits and genetic sequencing, in order to better monitor its citizens and wider society. Criticism by human rights activists regarding the usage of such data to feed the “social credit system,” which rewards or penalises people based on their behavior, is rife. The system, ostensibly designed to increase lawfulness and integrity, allows citizens to earn points for good behavior, such as volunteering, donating blood, and more. High scorers are eligible to receive welfare benefits such as free medical checkups or discounts.
However, questions about its practical application remain. In the realm of medical care, it remains unclear if the system will allow offenders (such as the 900 hospital scalpers detained by police in Beijing last year) to seek medical treatment for genuine health concerns in the future.