Efforts to improve mainland China’s grass-roots medical system took a step forward last weekend with the approval of a new law on public health care. But while one of the provisions aims to enhance the safety of doctors and nurses, it is no guarantee of an end to excessively high incidences of physical and verbal abuse. The killing of a doctor by the son of an elderly woman who had suffered a stroke highlights the challenges. While there is understandable outrage at the attack and the punishment must be commensurate with the crime, there also has to be better education and a shift in attitudes. The woman doctor at a Beijing hospital died on Christmas Day of stab wounds to the neck. Her attacker allegedly believed she had prescribed the wrong medicine for his 95-year-old mother; he has been arrested and charged with intentional homicide. Lawmakers and medical associations have condemned the incident and called for improved security for hospital staff. But the tragedy is just the latest of many and the problem is about more than just protection. A 2018 report by the Chinese Medical Doctor Association found that two-thirds of doctors on the mainland had been verbally abused and 30 per cent had experienced violence. Analysis of 295 media reports of attacks on health workers over the past 10 years by the Renmin University journalism school found that 24 people had been killed and 362 injured. There can never be any excuse for such actions, sometimes the result of patients or their family and friends believing they know best what treatment is needed and refusing to accept advice. Another cause, fuelled by social media, is the contention that some medical staff and hospitals are less interested in the welfare of patients than in making money by prescribing expensive medicines or requiring unnecessary tests. The new legislation is a recognition by authorities of failings in the medical system. It requires greater resources to be put towards community health facilities and staff, particularly in poorer areas. It also highlights the importance of the safety and dignity of medical workers, emphasising that they should be given legal protection and should not have to endure threats or violence. These are worthy and necessary sentiments, but much more is needed before doctors and nurses can carry out their work in secure environments. Working conditions in medical facilities need to markedly improve. A mechanism must be created to resolve conflicts between doctors and patients. But there also has to be greater trust in the medical fraternity and respect for its workers. With better knowledge and understanding of conditions and problems, patients and their relatives will be more able to deal with matters of life and death.