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China

In China, Doctors Assaulted When Cures Don't Work

Better watch the other hand too ...
Better watch the other hand too ...
Wen Xin

BEIJING — Earlier this month, in the central Hunan province, the family of a cancer patient beat up the attending doctor and a pregnant nurse because they had been unable to save the patient's life. The nurse nearly had a miscarriage afterwards, while the hospital ward facilities were badly damaged.

On June 5, the Chinese Medical Doctor Association firmly denounced the act and demanded that the perpetrators be punished — not the first time it has been forced to publicly pronounce its disapproval of such behavior.

But will such an expression of condemnation work? I fear that only if China achieves greater openness and transparency about medical risks can an end be put to the doctor-patient conflicts and occasional violent acts such as this.

Chinese media has reported more than 60 cases of violence against doctors since 2003. The Chinese Medical Doctor Association's incomplete statistics show that last year there were 16 doctors injured or killed in such incidents. According to my own calculations, between February and June this year more than 11 serious cases of doctors being injured have been registered.

This increasing number of medical-related conflicts demonstrate that the major cause of violence is due to the patient’s or patient's family's lack of medical knowledge and their unrealistic expectations of medical treatment.

Even a nurse administering injections could become subject to an assault. This shows the great importance of dialogue about medical risks between medical staff and patients. Medical risks make up in fact the most entangled factor in doctor-patient conflicts.

Emotions and education

To patients, medical risks imply the uncertainty that may result in injury or disability because of unsafe consequences or professional incompetency during the entire process of medical care. But some treatments, especially for serious illnesses, can sometimes come with known, serious risks, that are not linked to the level of care.

Chinese people are more emotional than informed about both health risks and current medical treatment. But the onus is on the medical establishment to educate the public. If a particular illness, for example, has a cure rate of 70%, the medical staff must be frank with the patient and family members beforehand that there is indeed a 30% chance of failure, and explain exactly what that means.

Those who have lashed out at medical staff attribute the responsibility for the ultimate health condition of a patient to the doctor, often thinking "I spent so much money to be cured." Meanwhile doctors who have done their best don't understand the anger.

Better communication between doctors and patients is the key to reducing such conflicts like we witnessed in Hunan this month. While we condemn violence, we also call for more openness by all relevant parties about risks of treatment and probability of cures.

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