SARS doctor speaks out on loss of patients' trust

By Liu Weining and Liu Dan
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, November 15, 2011
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Protective measures [By Jiao Haiyang/]

"Doctor-patient relationship has reached a dangerous breaking point," Dr. Zhong Nanshan, known as one of the first Chinese scientists who identified the SARS virus, said at a Nov. 12 forum aimed to improve doctors' ethical awareness and credibility.

The forum was hosted by Guangdong Medical Doctor Association and attempted to address critical issues raised in a series of recent hospital incidents. The group issued a "Proposal of five principles on a harmonious doctor-patient relationship," which calls for the two sides to build mutual respect and understanding.

The urgent message is especially timely after most recently a premature baby was disposed of mistakenly for a stillborn in a Nanhai hospital in southern China. There have also been incidents over the past few months where patients angry over unsatisfactory treatments killed or critically injured their doctors.

Zhong said there are three reasons that led to the tension between doctors and patients and the incidents that "shocked the world."

Institutionally, the government's healthcare funding is lacking, he said. "China's current medical expenses accounted for only 4.89 percent of its GDP. That's quite low compared to rest of the world - we even fall behind Cuba." This fact set up a general course of action for the country's healthcare industry that is lacking in concerns for the public's welfare. Since 1978, China has been primarily market-drive in its provision of healthcare and social services. It has been maximizing profits instead of prioritizing patient care. "The fact is, doctors have to make a living," Zhong said.

Making things worse is the uneven distribution of China's medical resources, he said. Doctors' abilities and the quality of medical facilities at the base level hospitals are poor, which lead to frequent delays in diagnosis and treatment. Patients end up having to go to a select few elite hospitals even for minor illnesses, resulting in expensive medical bills.

In addition, Zhong said some hospitals fail to stress enough on medical ethics, which leads to the compromises in providing humane care, resulting in recent tragedies.

Improving ethical awareness

"Doctor-patient relationship is a comprehensive problem," Zhong said. "Improving the system is one thing; what's more important is to improve the doctors' understanding of ethics."

He said there is still room for improvement in the education of medical ethics. Talking about the incident of the premature baby, he said: "If the mother of this premature child was not a migrant worker but a businessman or government official, will the healthcare professionals make the same mistake? Why do treatments differ from man to man?" He continued with another case of medical malpractice. A woman went to a hospital in Shantou for miscarriage prevention treatments. To her horror, she was mistakenly given an abortion drug.

"We do want to speak for the doctors. However, in the face of all these incidents, what can we say?" Zhong said. "The decay of medical ethics is the desecration of the sacred duty of a doctor!"

The doctors should keep the patients' well being in mind

Zhong spoke of his own encounters of patients' demonstration in their lack of trust. "I have also met patients who came to me with a tape recorder in their bag. But I am not afraid because I dedicate completely to the patients." he said. Admitting that the spirit of Dr. Norman Bethune in China has declined, Zhong said many doctors have even lost their moral bottom line. It's the root of the trust crisis.

Zhong said doctors must first have a sense of responsibility, compassion and a thirst to improve. They must hold to a set of ethical guidelines for medical professionals. The doctors should always keep the well being of their patients in their mind. They should be on the same side with the patients in the fight against the diseases.

Zhong said he believed it's not that difficult for the doctors to communicate with the patients. "First, doctors should consider the patients' conditions," he said. "They should also consider whether the patients can afford the treatments. If the costs are too high for the patients, then use other drugs instead. When a doctor treats the patient very sincerely, the patient will see that sincerity and trust the doctor."

(This article was first published in Chinese and translated by Li Huiru.)

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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