system change, the theme of the World Cancer Congress in Shenzhen, China, Aug 18—21, was a central message in the opening address by the Chinese Minister of Health, Chen Zhu, as he described current health-care system reforms in China. At the Congress many international health policy makers and physicians led discussions on frameworks and actions for system change, but there was little participation from local Chinese doctors.
To understand why there were so few Chinese delegates in the plenary sessions on system change compared with sessions on patients' care, one must first understand that for many Chinese doctors personal safety is of greater concern. Chinese doctors are often victims of terrible violence. In June this year, a doctor and a nurse were fatally stabbed in Shandong Province by the son of a patient who died of liver cancer 13 years ago, and a paediatrician in Fujian Province was injured after leaping out of a fifth-floor window to escape the angry relatives of a newborn baby who had died under his care. Thus, it is not surprising to see that in July police officers were invited to be the vice-presidents of 27 hospitals in Shenyang. With hospitals turned into battlegrounds, being a doctor has become a dangerous job in China.
The problem may be largely one of perception. Many Chinese patients believe that doctors and hospitals conspire to increase charges by providing unnecessary examinations, investigations, and treatments. Additionally, some doctors accept red envelopes (a monetary gift in exchange for favourable service) against the rules. Many patients blame the deterioration of their health directly on doctors, claiming that doctors lack devotion and skills. The intellectual ideals of ancient China were “either to be a good prime minister or to be an excellent doctor”, while in modern China doctors and nurses used to be worshipped as “angels in white”. How has the perception of Chinese doctors become so eroded?
The Chinese media certainly have an important role in provoking tension between doctors and patients. There is disproportionate coverage in newspapers, television, and on the internet of how health professionals have cheated patients. Just a few weeks ago the Southern Metropolis Daily (the most popular newspaper in Guangdong) falsely accused a midwife, who had treated haemorrhoids for a patient after childbirth, of stitching the patient's anus closed on purpose. In November, 2009, one of China's most authoritative media outlets, CCTV (China Central Television), reported that the renowned Peking University First Hospital was carrying out illegal medical practices by allowing medical students to do surgical procedures, and as a result a patient had died. Even though the hospital and the Ministry of Health made it clear that involving medical students in clinical procedures including surgery under the supervision of licensed doctors is legal, trust in doctors and hospitals was seriously damaged. It is hard to tell whether the misreport resulted from a lack of medical knowledge on the parts of the Southern Metropolis Daily and CCTV, or whether it was motivated by a desire for a sensational story. However, the public misunderstanding of the medical profession will surely hurt both doctors and patients in the end.
Most hospitals in China, especially the large ones such as Peking Union Medical College Hospital and Huashan Hospital of Fudan University, are run by the government. Public hospitals in China enjoyed full government funding before 1985. After economic reforms, the hospitals now receive very limited financial support from the government, with the result that hospitals must generate income to cover costs. As the main source of hospitals' income is from diagnostics and treatment, there is a financial incentive to over-investigate and over-treat. To minimise inappropriate conflicts of interest, the Chinese Government passed laws to prevent doctors receiving financial kickbacks from drug companies. Because the standard salary of a doctor is modest, even by Chinese standards, many doctors struggle to balance professional ethics and making ends meet in an economically booming China. Such pressures, coupled with a sense of feeling seriously undervalued by the government and society as a whole, drive many doctors out of medicine into other jobs.
China's health-system reforms cannot be successful without reforming the social and economic status of doctors. Chinese doctors should be involved more in shaping health policy, by giving voice to their own experiences and constructive ideas about the health system.