Voices from the frontline: The growing problem of violence in China’s hospitals

Following the vicious attack by two government officials on a 28-year-old nurse at a Nanjing hospital last month, a senior policy advisor in Beijing added his voice to the growing chorus demanding better protection for China’s medical workers.

Wen Jianmin, a doctor and outspoken member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference noted that:

Since 2001, 30 doctors and nurses have been killed by patients and their relatives. In 2014, there have already been seven attacks in hospitals across the country. We haven’t seen similar situations in other parts of the world.

However, Emily Yang, an experienced nurse who has been working on the frontline at one of Nanjing’s best hospitals for ten years now, says it will take more than the intervention of one senior official to stop the violence.

Emily argued that the problem was in part caused by the uneven allocation of resources in China's hospitals. She noted that the recent violence against medical workers tended to occur in hospitals in major cities where local governments had overly-concentrated research, finance and manpower resources.

These key hospitals attract the best doctors and nurses but they also draw in vast numbers of patients from the countryside who have limited medical facilities near their homes and certainly nothing like the resources the big hospitals can provide. According to recent statistics, there are 1.75 doctors for every 1,000 people in urban areas of China but only 0.47 doctors per 1,000 residents in rural areas.

“In my hospital, two nurses have to take care of as many as 45 patients during an 8-hour shift. We are not able to attend to the patients as and when they need us,” said Emily. “I have submitted numerous requests to management asking for reinforcements but never got any response.”

The situation for doctors is not any better. A famous traditional Chinese medicine doctor in Nanjing explained that, due to exploding demand, she now had to see well over 100 patients a day.

“How can you possibly have enough time for every single patient when you are faced with so many of them. It is understandable that they feel like they are being neglected by the doctors,” she said.

Emily Yang argued that China needed a clear and strong law that specifically protected health workers’ rights and hospital workplace safety. She pointed out that in Hong Kong, a couple were being prosecuted for yelling at and threatening doctors and nurses but that in mainland China, “We get yelled at all the time. We need a zero-tolerance policy for any form of violence in hospitals.”

The lack of an effective trade union in Chinese hospitals, as noted in my colleague Geoff’s blog last week, was also a serious problem. Emily said:

Unions in the West are much stronger and more importantly they actually do things for their members. I have been a union member for ten years and haven’t attended one union conference. The union in our hospital is chaired by a retired and spaced-out doctor and the only thing they do is send out toilet paper and movie tickets.

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