China Power

Fighting to Get Seen

China’s hospitals can be a depressing experience. No wonder things can get rowdy.

Last month, the New York Times reported that: ‘In 2006, the last year the (Chinese) Health Ministry published statistics on hospital violence, attacks by patients or their relatives injured more than 5,500 medical workers.’

It's easy to understand sometimes why Chinese people are beating up their doctors and nurses. During a recent early morning visit to a renowned children's hospital in Shanghai, I endured a 12-hour wait for the doctor slated to see our then-two-month-old son. That was after a 90-minute drive to the hospital at dawn. When we arrived at the ticket station to take a ticket to see the doctor, we were told that all tickets for that doctor had already gone. Later, applying a bit of charm that included bursting into another doctor’s office to explain our situation, we were able to be seen.

Every waiting area in the huge medical complex was filled with grandmothers and mothers (and the occasional father) surrounded by scores of crying babies and young children shouting at or to one another. The most comfortable waiting area, where dozens of families crowded or lounged on long leather benches, had a patio door-sized slice of wall covered with tarp, behind which buzz saws sliced through wood beams and power drills injected concrete walls with ear-piercing regularity. At every door where a doctor was in attendance there were crowds of dozens of people carrying their infants waiting for a chance to dart into examination rooms when the doors were cracked open wide enough to let a patient out. 

Patients must pay for every referral at cashier windows, which themselves also typically have long lines. Need to see a doctor? Pay first. That doctor says you need an X-ray? Return to the cashier to pay. Need a diagnosis on the X-ray? Return to the cashier line to pay. At the payment windows on the ground floor of the Shanghai hospital a middle aged man hurled expletives at the cashier encased in Plexiglas. The administrator was nonplussed.

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A month later, for our baby’s three-month check-up at the premiere children’s hospital in Suzhou where I live, one impromptu ‘performance’ included  that of a twenty something man who had written up placards to place on the sidewalk at the main entrance of the hospital. My wife and I joined a crowd of a couple dozen people to absorb the story of the boy’s once-pregnant sister who took medicine prescribed by a doctor retained by the hospital. The foetus died in utero, a fact the family didn’t find out for several days. Later we saw a scuffle between two families on the steaming August asphalt of a parking lot. I’d have stayed to see which side won, but it was just too hot to be bothered with such an everyday occurrence.

The New York Times article also noted: ‘Like some other cities, Shenyang has been seeking ways to ward off disturbances, including setting up hospital mediation centres. Still, the city reported 152 “severe conflicts” between patients and doctors last year.’

Actually, much of China’s healthcare problems stem from too many people require services that still suffer from central planning, a lack of trained professionals, a lack of facilities and a lack of budget. Though Chinese hospitals in major cities aren’t on the order of those found in the third world, citizens of the world's second-largest economy deserve better.