China's medical system could not stop the cancer eating at Guo Shushi's stomach. It roared back even after Mr. Guo, a 63-year-old real estate developer, endured surgery, chemotherapy and radiation at two hospitals.
Then his son-in-law discovered online that — for a price — companies were willing to help critically ill Chinese people seek treatment abroad. Soon Mr. Guo was at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, receiving a new immunotherapy drug, Keytruda, which is not available in China. In April, nearly four months later, his tumor has shrunk and his weight has gone up.
"When I arrived, I could feel how large the gap was," said Mr. Guo of the difference in care.
The cost: about $220,000 — all paid out of pocket.
China's nearly 1.4 billion people depend on a strained and struggling health care system that belies the country's rise as an increasingly wealthy global power. But more and more, the rich are finding a way out.
Western hospitals and a new group of well-connected companies are reaching for well-heeled Chinese patients who need lifesaving treatments unavailable at home. The trend is a twist on the perception of medical tourism as a way to save money, often on noncritical procedures like dental work and face-lifts. For these customers, getting out of China is a matter of life or death.