Amid pain and sometimes fury, China’s mega hospitals need to get back to basics

  • Crowds, noise, frustration and hostility are the reality in the country’s health care institutions
  • No system is healthy if doctors and patients are unhappy
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 6:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 7:30pm

Hospitals are not supposed to be violent. As places to relieve pain and cure diseases, they should be quiet, calm and comforting. In China’s mega public hospitals, however, I feel they are filled with crowds, noise, frustration, and sometimes, hostility.

Recently, I had to spend some time in a public hospital in Beijing, going through surgery to correct broken bones.

It all started at 4am waiting outside the hospital to get a number to see a specialist, only to find myself in a queue of hundreds of people. So I spent 300 yuan (US$43.20), triple the standard price of an appointment, to buy a number from a scalper. Technically, it was illegal, but the scalper said I was one of the lucky ones.

Indeed, after two hours of waiting outside the specialist’s office, I was grateful to see him. His room was crammed with patients and their relatives, too many of them. When it was finally my turn, we had five minutes together during which he confirmed surgery would be necessary. I was admitted into hospital after making some calls to friends who used their connections to get me a bed. This is a challenge when there are more patients waiting than available beds.

The doctors crowdsourcing public’s help to solve medical problems

Lying on a rock-hard hospital bed, it would be more than 40 hours before I was operated on. I was given no food or water. Just before my scheduled operation, someone did not wake up from the anaesthetic so everything was delayed. As I starved, staring at the ceiling, I could hear people shouting and crying in the corridor.

I did not see my specialist again, nor did I know what was planned for the surgery. All the doctors and nurses seemed too busy to explain. It was almost a relief when I was pushed into the operating theatre.

In moments of desperation I wanted to scream at anyone in a white coat. However, there was no one except my mother who cared for me on the nights hospital staff would tell us not to bother them as they slept. We did not complain.  

Yet I was better off than many others. I did not have a fatal disease; I had family members to care for me while the system failed; and my medical insurance would cover less than half of the five-figure hospital bill. I have to wonder, though, if things were worse, could I cope?

Late last month, in another Beijing mega hospital, a man beat a gynaecologist who refused to perform a caesarean on his pregnant wife. According to media reports, the doctor was badly hurt, suffering broken bones. Local police detained the attacker. The hospital, Peking University First Hospital and the Chinese Medical Doctors’ Association issued statements condemning the violence. The police also said there would be zero tolerance of such behaviour.

Chinese man held over attack on doctors who denied wife caesarean

Every year, such violent disputes between patients and doctors will make headlines. In March, a doctor in Anhui was killed by the husband of a patient. In February 2017, an oncologist in Fujian province suffered head injuries after a cancer patient attacked him with a hammer. In October 2016, a father stabbed a paediatrician 15 times after his daughter died shortly after birth. The doctor did not survive.

Both sides are in “pain” and feel insecure. Patients lack care and comfort while doctors miss trust and respect. Some say mistrust in the health care system has led to this violence. I think it is we who have lost confidence in each other. No system is healthy if doctors and patients are unhappy.

China has been reforming its medical system to ensure basic access for everyone. But human beings also have basic needs: dignity, comfort and safety. No place should be more humane than a hospital. So how can violence be curbed in Chinese public hospitals? I have no answers , but perhaps we could start from those basics.

It has been reported that some hospitals are using artificial intelligence to treat patients: more accurate, less emotional and they won’t get attacked (which I doubt). However, I would rather see more real doctors and nurses as they ask me: “Are you in pain?”

Haining Liu is a journalist and aspiring author