Kung Fu Doctors: Shanghai Hospitals Train Medical Staff for Attacks

Some physicians in Shanghai are training to deal with violence in their hospitals

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A doctor examines patients in a corridor of the Zhongshan Hospital of Fudan University in Shanghai on March 16, 2012

Should medical staff be trained to tackle knife-wielding assailants? You’d hope not. But two Shanghai hospitals are doing just that. On Tuesday, staff members at the city’s Zhongshan and Huashan hospitals gathered to learn self-defense from martial-arts experts. Photographs from the sessions show simulated combat involving weapons and foldable chairs. “It will teach them how to react to an unexpected attack,” one organizer told local press.

The idea of dropkicking doctors sounds like a dark joke, but their fear and the risks are real. On Oct. 25, at a hospital not far from Shanghai, Dr. Wang Yunjie a 46-year-old chief physician from the ear, nose and throat department of No. 1 People’s Hospital in Wenling was stabbed to death by a patient. The attacker, disgruntled over the outcome of a nasal surgery, entered the office looking for his doctor, could not find him, so charged at the chief with a 30-cm blade. Two others were seriously injured before the attacker was subdued.

Wang’s death, though gruesome, was hardly an isolated incident. Late last month, a man in Liaoning province stabbed a doctor six times after an argument about complications from surgery. Around the same time, a doctor in Guangdong province suffered injuries to his eye and spleen when he was beaten by a patient’s family for refusing them entry to the ICU. In the days since the killing in Wenling, there have been six serious attacks, says the China Hospital Association.

This type of violence isn’t new, but it does seem to be getting worse. Since 2002, attacks have jumped an average of almost 23% per year, according the China Hospital Management Society. A survey by the China Hospital Association found that the average number of assaults per hospital, per year, rose from 20.6 in 2008 to 27.3 in 2012. “China’s doctors are in crisis,” declared the Lancet, a medical journal, in May last year.

The rise of hospital rage reflects the many ways in which China’s health care system is broken. The “barefoot doctors” that once tended to China’s poor have given way to a patchwork of public and private hospitals and an array of insurance schemes. The system is vast, complex and very broken. Patients complain of long waits, rampant corruption and high fees. Although the government now claims to insure most of the population, medical bills still bankrupt families. And when you are paying your last penny, you expect results.

Doctors are equally dissatisfied. The number of well-trained medical workers has not kept pace with the number of patients, leaving staff thinly stretched. To make matters worse, Chinese doctors are considered civil servants and often earn less than $500 a month — a token compared with their peers in the private sector, where wages are rising. The proportion of doctors who hoped their children would enter the profession dropped from a disheartening 11% in 2002 to a dismal 7% in 2011, according to statistics from the Chinese Medical Doctors’ Association. “I regret very much having chosen to study medicine,” wrote a medical student to the Lancet in 2012.

In response to the most recent spate of violence, the government announced emergency security measures, including a security guard per 20 beds. But not even Chinese state media seemed convinced by the news. “Under the guideline, a hospital with 3,500 workers or 2,000 beds should have at least 100 security guards,” noted the China Daily. “Most of the big hospitals in Shanghai have only 40 to 50 security personnel.” Like martial-arts classes for doctors and nurses, the idea treats the symptom, but it’s no cure.

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing